Published: Wednesday, February 14, 2001
Back in their competitive days, Wally "Spider" Wakefield and Phil "Moose" Sanders used to hear the country's top ski jumpers talk about "making the boat."
That meant they made the U.S. team that traveled to competitions in Europe, which at the time meant crossing the Atlantic Ocean by boat.
Wakefield and Sanders never made the boat. They never competed at the revered, and almost mythical, Valhalla of ski jumping, the Holmenkollen, situated just outside Oslo, Norway, or on any other European hill.
They missed the boat, but they don't plan on missing the plane that will take them across the Atlantic this month to fulfill their lifelong dream of attending ski-jumping competitions at four of the world's most famous venues.
Sanders and Wakefield leave Feb. 26 for Europe, where they will spend two weeks watching the best ski jumpers competing in World Cup meets at Obertsdorf, Germany, on March 3-4; Falun, Sweden, on March 7; Trondheim, Norway, on March 9; and finally at the Holmenkollen on March 11.
"Ski jumping is a sport that gets in your blood and never leaves," Wakefield said.
"This is a trip of a lifetime for a ski jumper," Sanders added. "It's a real adventure. The excellence in this sport always has been in Europe. That's the place to see the best."
At the ages of 70 (Wakefield) and 63 (Sanders), their best jumping days are behind them. But that hasn't lessened their love of the sport, one that was so big in St. Paul and throughout Minnesota at one time but has diminished in popularity over the past couple of decades.
Wakefield and Sanders earned their nicknames of Spider and Moose during their early ski-jumping days from fellow jumper John Lyons.
"Phil was twice as big as anyone else. He was a moose," Wakefield said.
"When Wally jumped, his arms were flying all over the place. He looked like a spider," Sanders added.
Somehow, the Spider and the Moose survived years of going off ski jumps and have maintained a friendship of more than a half-century.
Wakefield is a retired teacher and lifelong St. Paul resident who found a second career as a sports columnist for the Lillie Suburban News Review in North St. Paul and Maplewood. Upon returning from Europe, he plans to write about his experiences in the Review.
Sanders, of Stillwater, is retired from the St. Paul Police Department, for which he was a civilian employee. They met more than 50 years ago through the St. Paul Ski Club, which was founded in 1885, and have maintained a love and passion for the sport since.
Bryan Sanders, Phil's son, learned to ski at the club's Harrington Hill site at Carver's Lake in Maplewood and went on to make the U.S. Ski Team and compete in the 1992 Winter Olympics in Albertville, France.
The Wakefields -- Wally and his brothers, sons, daughters, nieces and nephews -- have been part of St. Paul's ski-jumping scene for a few generations.
Each began ski jumping when he was about 10, and both have stayed involved in the sport since, as competitors and then as coaches, officials and volunteers. Both took their last jump about seven years ago.
"But I don't know if I ever retired. I don't think I have," Sanders said. "It's just that I haven't jumped since 1994."
That also was the last year Wakefield went down a slide. He was having trouble keeping his balance and didn't know why. Later, he learned he had multiple sclerosis.
"After my last jump, my son Peter said to me, 'You really don't have anything to prove anymore.' "
He didn't, and hung up his long boards for good.
His passion for ski jumping never waned, however.
When Sanders approached him a couple of years ago with the idea of taking a trip to Europe's top ski-jumping venues, Wakefield jumped at the idea.
The plan came together last fall -- "After we got some cheap plane tickets," Sanders said -- and the two longtime friends finally "made the boat."
After flying to Oslo, they will take a train to Obertsdorf to see the ski-flying competition on the 185-meter hill. Ski-flying hills are the biggest. There are only six of them in the world, including Copper Peak in Ironwood, Mich., which has not been used for several years.
Then, they will take a train back to Scandinavia for the three World Cup competitions there on 115- and 120-meter hills, called "large hills" in ski-jumping vernacular.
The biggest hills Wakefield and Sanders flew off were 90 meters.
"One of the things I want to see is how much the sport has changed," Wakefield said. "I want to view it from the perspective of a former ski jumper and see how it compares to the past. No question, the sport has changed. They're really flying now. It's very different."
Sanders nodded in agreement. "We'll go from our 45-meter hill here and see rides of 210 meters," he said. "It should be great."
For both, going to these tournaments at those sites is akin to a baseball fan going to Cooperstown.
"Going to Holmenkollen is the pinnacle, the epitome, of the sport. It's near where ski jumping began. It's like going to a shrine," said Wakefield, who years ago visited Holmenkollen in the summer but has not been there for a competition.
"For so many years I've heard people talk about Holmenkollen and all the other places in Europe, places I could only dream about. There was no doubt in my mind that this was the thing to do. I've been on a lot of ski trips but nothing like this. We'll be around so many people who enjoy the sport as much as we do. Hopefully, we'll run into some old ski jumpers we haven't seen in a long time."
The Holmenkollen, Sanders said, is called "The King's Meet" because the King of Norway always is in attendance.
"One of the former kings was a ski jumper who skied at Holmenkollen," Sanders said, "so you can see how big it is there."
Sanders came up with the idea for the trip after traveling around Europe with his wife. On one of those trips, he and his wife stopped in Innsbruck, Austria, where a Springertournee ski-jumping tournament was going on.
"It was fun watching that, and I thought it would be fun going to other tournaments around Europe, like Holmenkollen, where there are 100,000 spectators," Sanders said. "I suggested to Wally that we should go, and he said count him in. He wanted to see Holmenkollen."
Moose and Spider will make the trip without their wives.
"Donna said she's seen enough ski tournaments to last a lifetime!" Wakefield said of his wife.
But Sanders and Wakefield
have not. They wanted to see the best ski-jumping tournaments in the world.
Finally, after all these years, they made the boat.
Gregg Wong can be reached at email@example.com or at (651) 228-5508.