Ožbej Kotnik, 17, of Slovenia bested a field of 30 competitors from seven states and two European countries on Feb. 19 at Brattleboro’s Harris Hill Ski Jump.
Dana Sprague/Special to The Commons
Ožbej Kotnik, 17, of Slovenia bested a field of 30 competitors from seven states and two European countries on Feb. 19 at Brattleboro’s Harris Hill Ski Jump.

Harris Hill ski jump returns, rising above a tree-tapping thaw

Despite unseasonably warm weather, organizers pull together another great weekend of competition and fun

BRATTLEBORO — With more wins than any other late-model stock-car racer at Barre's Thunder Road Speedbowl, Gov. Phil Scott has plenty of experience with speed sports. But standing at the base of Brattleboro's Harris Hill over the weekend, he apologized for not taking a turn at Vermont's sole Olympic-size ski jump.

“I fully intended to compete,” the 64-year-old Scott told a crowd of thousands upon Saturday's start of the annual Presidents Day weekend competition. “But unfortunately, I left my skis at home.”

That left 17-year-old Slovenian Ožbej Kotnik to leap nearly 90 meters on Sunday and win the 101st annual tournament memorializing the hill's late founder, Fred Harris.

“This is one of the best competitions of my life,” said Kotnik, who flew 4,000 miles from his homeland as part of a field of 30 competitors from seven states and two European countries. “The crowd, they pump you up.”

Kotnik bested 23-year-old fellow Slovenian Vid Vrhovnik, who landed the longest jumps of the weekend, only to see one shorter 82-meter leap pull down his overall score.

“It's nice,” Vrhovnik said of the century-old Brattleboro hill in a sport dominated by ramps atop scaffolding. “The new ones are all the same.”

The tournament ended with several more winners - beginning with the snowmakers who defied a thaw so prolonged, the town's primary maple syrup producer (the Robb Family Farm) has begun tapping and boiling.

Snowmakers revved up a new gun system with the arrival of record cold on Groundhog Day, only to watch temperatures rise into the 50s last week. When a freeze returned Friday night, crews spread the remaining snow around with shovels and a silage blower, then foot-stomped it in place on skis.

“I had the worst-case scenario in my mind,” chief of competition Todd Einig said after a night of work. “But we're in good shape.”

Einig labored alongside 30-year-old Spencer Knickerbocker, the event's only Brattleboro-born athlete, and 12-year-old Spencer Jones, a promising local up-and-comer in the hill's junior training program.

“It's hard to weather this weather,” said Knickerbocker, head of the nearby Marlboro Nordic Ski Club, which is currently closed because of a lack of snow.

The governor nonetheless arrived Saturday to an icy hill brimming with dozens of volunteers and a sleep-deprived local grounds crew from Evans Construction and Rosinski Masonry.

“I grew up in Vermont but have never been here to witness this event,” Scott told the crowd during the opening ceremony. “It's like sugar season. It takes a lot of work, but you get something special in the end.”

The Republican then climbed to the top of the 30-story-tall hill (a workout, his accompanying state trooper attested) before posing for selfie upon selfie requested by the region's left-leaning crowd.

The governor wasn't the only dignitary in attendance. State Treasurer Mike Pieciak stopped by on a visit to his parents' nearby home. Lacking his own security detail, he made do with his English setter, Jetty.

Peter Graves, the hill's longtime public address announcer, was honored for his coming induction into the U.S. Ski & Snowboard Hall of Fame. Graves, born in Bennington and now of East Thetford, has worked at the Olympics, either as a sportscaster or stadium announcer, since 1980.

(Graves' one exception: He chose Brattleboro over last year's Beijing Winter Games to help Harris Hill celebrate the centennial of its 1922 founding.)

Sandy Harris capped the tournament by presenting the Winged Ski Trophy her father gave annually until he died in 1961 and her mother then bestowed until she died in 1999. Kotnik received the award amid applause from competitors from his homeland, Norway, and states as far away as Alaska.

Fans, for their part, clanged cowbells for all.

Charley Grandinetti, 11, of Massachusetts, recalled visiting the hill in 2019 when he heard Knickerbocker announced as a “hometown hero.” Approaching the jumper to say hello, the boy was surprised when the athlete gave him a medal he had just won.

Grandinetti wore it around his neck over the weekend when he returned to cheer again.

“Considering the weather,” Knickerbocker said as he posed for a reunion photo with his young fan, “this is the absolute best we could expect.”

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