Ted Laursen was among a group of Eau Claire skiers taking part in the tournament at the huge Pine Mountain slide at Iron Mountain, Mich., one of the world’s biggest hills at the time.
“Billy had the longest jump of the day,” said Laursen, now 91.
It was not only the longest jump of the day but a historic one. The official 297-foot flight matched the longest in North American history.
Billy, of course, was Willis “Billy” Olson who would go on from that achievement in 1949 to become one of America’s greatest skiers.
Olson, 91, died Friday in Eau Claire.
Few U.S. skiers won so many honors in so many areas than Olson, who began as a youth skier with the Flying Eagles Ski Club.
He was unbeaten as a collegian, winning three NCAA jumping titles for the University of Denver, which he attended on a ski scholarship; was the only or one of the only to win titles in the four major classes of competition – A, B, C or Junior, and Veterans; was one of the first Americans to attempt ski flying and skied in two Olympic Games.
“He was in a class by himself,” said Bob “Pinky” Schaaf, 91, one-time jumper and club officer and better known for his football prowess. “He could jump long and had beautiful form. He had everything you wanted.”
Olson’s breakthrough came in 1948 as a 17-year-old Eau Claire High School senior. In an international field of stars, he outpointed everyone in a sensational performance at Iron Mountain, which became one of his favorite hills and where he was labeled “Billy the Kid.”
In the national championships, he won the Junior class title at Hyak, Wash., near Seattle, in 1948; took the Class B crown at Salt Lake City in 1949; won the Class A title at Iron Mountain in 1958 and went on to claim three Veterans titles for athletes 32 and over.
Olson jumped in the 1950 World championships at Lake Placid, N.Y., the 1952 Olympics at Olso, Norway, and the 1956 Games at Cortina, Italy. His best showing was 22nd at Oslo, when a slip upon landing jarred him bad enough to pop out a contact lens and cost him a possible top 10 or 15 finish.
In the then-new sport of ski flying, Olson was one of three Americans to be first to accept the challenge in 1952 at Obertsdorf, Germany. After falling and breaking his skis the first day, he borrowed skis and led Americans with a 393-foot flight, not far from the world record of 429 feet at the time.
His best year may have come in 1958 when he teamed with close friend Keith Zuehlke to dominate the U.S. scene after they were left off the world championship team.
Zuehlke, who won the national championship in 1956, could not be reached for comment. His son Reed, a two-time Olympian who won the national title in 1982, is Olson’s godson.
Laursen grew up in the Shawtown area with Olson and said Billy had a small jump in his yard to ski on as a toddler.
“I lived on Ferry Street and we skied all the time,” Laursen said. “We went through school together and were good friends through the years.”
Kerm Walker was the original Flying Eagles first treasurer and saw Olson growing up but didn’t realize he would become an Olympian.
“Oh no, I didn’t know,” said Walker, 95. “But he sure turned out to be one of the greatest.”
Olson was inducted into the National Ski Hall of Fame at Ishpeming, Mich., in 1972 and is a charter member of the American Ski Jumping Hall of Fame in Red Wing, Minn.