Each year tens of thousands of ski enthusiasts travel from all corners of the world to the small town of Hayward, Wisconsin. What draws so many people? Although it is impressive, it is not to see the world’s largest Muskie, at the National Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame. Hayward is home to The Birkie Trail, the largest ski race in North America. The 107 kilometer Birkie Trail system attracts skiers, runners, bikers, trekkers, and hikers, of every skill level. Each winter they all come together for the American Birkebeiner Ski Foundation’s Swix Birkie Week. In an interview with Executive Director, Ben Popp, I learned the history behind this incredible organization and how it grew to become a great success.
The History Behind the Birkie
The American Birkebeiner was founded in 1973 by WWII Vet and Hayward Native, Tony Weiss. In order to really understand what started the Birkie phenomenon we must travel back to 13th Century Norway in the year 1206. Two warrior soldiers, called “Birkebeiners” skied infant Prince Haakon to safety during the Norwegian civil war. Prince Haakon grew to become the King of Norway, and the Birkebeiner soldiers became a Norwegian symbol of courage, perseverance and character in the face of adversity. The first
Birkebeiner ski race was held in Norway in 1932 as a tribute to the Birkebeiners that carried the Prince to safety. Fast forward a few years to 1984, Tony Weiss brings the Birkebeiner to Hayward, WI. for the first American Birkebeiner. Only 37 skiers participated in the first American Birkebeiner most who never had been on skis before.
In 1985 to save the race The American Birkebeiner Foundation was created. The foundation was created with 3 missions in mind. The first to promote and host one of the world’s best cross country ski events. Second, to serve as good stewards of the American Birkebeiner Trail and the city of Hayward, WI. Lastly, to support healthy and active lifestyles among skiers of all ages. Thirty years later The American Birkebeiner Foundation is still honoring the same missions that it was founded on and continuing to empowering the Hayward community through varies partnerships.
It takes someone who is truly passionate about the Nordic ski community to take on the responsibility of Executive Director of the Largest North American Ski Trail. This is why Ben Popp was the perfect replacement filling the larger shoes of Ned Zuelsdorrff after he retired in 2012. In only two short years the impact Ben Popp has on the Birkie Foundation has been tremendous.
Swix Birkie Week
February 19-22, 2015
For those not familiar, The Birkie Week is a four day event that features a dozen ski races and thousands of participants. From the 55K Classic to the Barnebirkie and everything in between there are events the whole family can take part in. For a complete list of all the races happening during the Swix Birkie week Click Here.
Thousands have been diagnosed with a contagious phenomenon called “Birkie Fever” as they prepare for Birkie Week and there is no cure in sight. For those of you that have yet to experience Birkie Fever I asked Executive Director, Ben Popp, to describe exactly what is Birkie Fever:
“Think of a 7 year old on Christmas Morning. It is sort of a unaltered buildup of unbelievable excitement. People work all year to achieve this goal to accomplish just getting through it. One of the cool things is that it incorporates the most elite level of skiers from all over the world to people who have only been out once this year. Bring that all together with a supportive community and over 2,000 volunteers and it creates an unbelievable heap of excitement. That is Birkie Fever.”
A former Birkie skier himself, Ben is very familiar with the anticipation these athletes experience on race day. Now as Executive Director he has a different perceptive on race day. I asked him what his favorite part of Birkie Week is
“I get the most satisfaction out of seeing people come and enjoy an event or activity that they worked really hard on. Seeing all of the smiling faces, even through they are exhausted they are excited about getting to main street having a beer and swapping stories about their race with friends. Also, watching all of the kid events and seeing how excited these kids are. There are about 1,500 kids out Skiing the Barnebirkie and Junior Birkie, many being introduced to skiing for the first time. That is 1,500 kids that may ski the rest of there life.”
The Future of the Birkie
The Birkie is not slowing it’s pace anytime soon. They are currently working with the Mayo Clinic to study what motivates athletes to train for such a grueling race.
“The Mayo Clinic is using some of our skiers who are training for the 55K classic in a study to find what motivates athletes to train for a strenuous race. We are really excited to be working with them to motivate more athletes to get out there”.
Having twin 8 year old boys, continuing youth involvement in sports is very important to Ben Pop and is something he is working hard to grow. The Birkie foundation partners with many youth programs in and around the area to provide opportunities to get kids out skiing and hopefully keep them skiing for life. Each year The American Birkebeiner Foundation donates $40,000-$50,000 in grants to youth in the community that promote a healthy lifestyle.
The American Birkebeiner Foundation consists of of 13 board members, 8 full time staff, 9 part time staff and team of volunteers who work year round to make the Birkie possible. Their dedication and hard work pays off in a big way. Each year the Birkie is responsible for a 32 Million dollar economic impact for the city of Hayward.
The American Birkebeiner foundation would not be possible without the thousands of volunteers and the support from their members. If you would like to be become a member of The American Birkebeiner Foundation and be a part of this incrediable organization please visit the birkie website at: www.birkie.com