Each February for the last 40 years, thousands of cross-country skiers - including a strong contingent of Parkites - have descended on the Northwoods Wisconsin villages of Hayward and Cable for the American Birkebeiner, the largest ski race in the United States. The race, which began in 1973 with a mere 53 participants, has grown today to 10,000. The Birkie was the dream of entrepreneur Tony Wise, who envisioned his race as part of a vast global network affording ordinary "citizen skiers" the opportunity to ski the world as part of a circuit unmatched in all of sport.
This past weekend, representatives from the 16-nation "Worldloppet" convened in northern Wisconsin for the series' annual General Meeting. I was the PR director for the American Birkebeiner and the fledgling Worldloppet series during its origin in 1979, and the meeting brought back memories and rekindled friendships for me. And it provided a platform to remind today's generation of worldwide race leaders of the vision that had its humble beginnings just a few miles from where the delegates were meeting.
Skiing in America has been blessed with great leaders who brought innovation to a sport that was very Euro-centric - visionaries like Willy Schaeffler and Bob Beattie, and the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association's own Howard Peterson and Bill Marolt. Tony Wise was another pioneer of the post-World War II era who spearheaded the growth of alpine skiing in middle America. But in the 1970s, Wise saw another opportunity in cross-country skiing.
The Birkie grew like wildfire, from a tiny turnout in 1973 to thousands just four years later. line> 1977, Wise had set his sights higher, looking for a way to tie in the Birkie to a global series - one he would create! That fall he picked up the phone and called the leaders of every major ski race in the world, inviting them to Telemark Lodge in northern Wisconsin to form what we then called the World Loppet League. No one knew him. All were skeptical. But they all came to hear him out. And in January 1979, the dream became a reality.
Around 60,000 participants skied in the nine races that first year. Today, over 135,000 participate annually in 16-stop Worldloppet tour. Four more "associate races" were added last weekend. Nearly 4,000 skiers have achieved Worldloppet Masters status by completing 10 or more races in their lifetimes - among them Park City skiers Bob Gross and Gary and Nancy Fichter.
"I remember that there was much pageantry with oompah bands and feed stations in all the small cities," said Gross, who in addition to skiing in 10 events has worked as an official at eight. "People would have their programs and yell your name as you went by. In the Swedish Vasa, I can still remember the smell of the warming fires that everybody had along the way."
"It's just amazing the vision that he had," said Italian Angelo Corradini, the longtime secretary general of the Worldloppet. "His idea was brilliant to bring all these nations together. There is simply nothing like this in any other sport."
While my own work has long since moved away from the Worldloppet and cross-country ski marathons, it's always remained in my heart. Being a part of a formative idea - like the development of the USSA's Center of Excellence and, similarly, the origin of the Worldloppet 35 years ago - is something that remains with you always.
In 1983 and '84, through my Worldwide Nordic USA adventure travel company, I led the first American sportsmen to Murmansk, 500 miles above the Arctic Circle, in what was then the Soviet Union. While our nations battled politically, as sportsmen we built friendships.
In its 35 years, the Worldloppet has brought together hundreds of thousands of cross-country skiers. They've learned about other cultures and shared the lifestyle they had in common. What better way to see the world, foster friendship and share peace. Every nation is a unique culture, but each shares the commonality of sport.
One of the most experienced communications professionals in skiing, Tom Kelly is a veteran of eight Olympics and serves as vice president, Communications, for the Park City-based U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association. A Wisconsin native, he and his wife Carole Duh have lived in Park City since 1988 when he's not traveling the world with the team.