STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
The Winter Olympics are now underway in Pyeongchang, South Korea. And this year, 3 out of 4 members of the U.S. men's ski jumping team come from an unlikely place. Here's Quinn Myers of our member station WBEZ.
QUINN MYERS, BYLINE: On a recent morning, a bunch of kids wearing jumpsuits and carrying skis on their shoulders are climbing up the side of a huge wooden ski jump.
They just piled out of a minivan at the top of a big hill, driving up a winding road past front yards filled with boat trailers and swimming pools. The ski jump towers more than 200 feet off the top of the hill and looks like the dip of an old roller coaster held up by a bare metal frame. At the top, skiers shimmy onto a starting bar, place their skis on the track, lean forward. And...
(SOUNDBITE OF SKIERS JUMPING)
MYERS: ...A few seconds later, hundreds of feet away, they've landed neatly near the bottom.
This description might make you think you're in Colorado or Utah. But at the top of this jump, instead of mountain vistas, you see sprawling suburbs and highways.
MICHAEL GLASDER: People are kind of shocked. Then they kind of look at you weird, like - what the heck? - you're from Cary, Ill., close to Chicago. There's no mountains around there. You can't ski around there.
MYERS: That's Michael Glasder, who's been jumping at the Norge Ski Club here in Fox River Grove, Ill., since he was 5. Norge was founded in 1905 by three Norwegian immigrants from Chicago who wanted a place to ski on weekends. Now, more than a century later, the onetime suburban retreat has become a year-round training facility. Glasder is headed to this year's Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang along with fellow Norge members Kevin Bickner and Casey Larson.
GLASDER: The coaching there is phenomenal, and that's kind of fed our entire national team over the last 15 years.
MYERS: That coach is Scott Smith. Like Glasder, Smith has been jumping at Norge since he was a kid.
SCOTT SMITH: I was very passionate about it, and my dream was to go to the Olympics someday. I made it to the U.S. ski team and just missed out in the 1988 Olympics. And then I got into coaching right after that.
MYERS: Thirty years after his Olympic hopes were dashed, Smith has become instrumental in turning a big hill in a Chicago suburb into an Olympic-grade ski program. He says part of the club's recent success can be linked to the purchase of this large ski jump from a small town in Minnesota in 2004.
SMITH: We knew it was a good jump, so we contacted the city there and asked if we could get the jump. And they said yes, so we went up there and dismantled it and had it trucked down here and put it back up. And here it is.
MYERS: Smith says the bigger jump helps his skiers get better fast. During competition, distance, along with style, is a key factor for the judges. At Norge, skiers learn to jump gradually. They start on small jumps and work their way up to the big one. The U.S. hasn't medaled in ski jumping since the first Winter Olympics in 1924. And looking ahead to the competition in South Korea, Smith and Glasder say, while winning would be nice, that's not their only goal.
SMITH: I had a dream to be able to coach somebody that could make it to the Olympics. And the three guys that are going, I coached them all through their younger days, and here they are. You know, we've never had an Olympian, and now, all of a sudden, we have three.
MYERS: Three decades after he almost made the Olympic team, Smith says he plans to be in the stands in Pyeongchang, cheering on his skiers who trained at this unconventional facility in Fox River Grove, Ill.
For NPR News, I'm Quinn Myers.
(SOUNDBITE OF JONATHAN RICHMAN'S "EGYPTIAN REGGAE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.