Amazing contributions to the Winter Olympics have come from Muskegon

By Jim Moyes
Local Sports Journal

Perhaps I am a little old fashioned in my ways, now that I have reached those so-called ‘Golden Years’ of one’s lifespan, but I continue to marvel at what our area has contributed to this wonderful world of sports.

However, I think many of us really don’t fully appreciate, or even recognize, the amazing impact our area has contributed to this year’s edition of the Winter Olympics in Sochi.

It’s not like Muskegon is conveniently geographically located in the middle of a winter sports wonderland. Muskegon is not Lake Placid, Squaw Valley or a majestic winter sports complex nestled in the Rocky Mountains.

But what area can boast of contributing more to this year’s Olympics than Muskegon?

Let’s first begin with a sport that has taken these Olympics by storm – snowboarding.  And to think it all began right here in Muskegon.

This wonderful sport’s origin goes back to Christmas Day in 1965.

Nearly a foot of snow had fallen on Christmas Eve in the Port City and the nearby dunes were perfect for the traditional recreational sport of sledding or tobogganing.

However, the father of two exuberant daughters, with an expectant third on the way, couldn’t find a sled or even a popular flying saucer dish.

Muskegon’s answer to Thomas Edison just had to come up with something. What in the world could the girls, Wendy and Laurie, use to slide down the inviting snow covered dunes?  Their father grabbed an old ski outside for the youngsters to slide on, but that just wouldn’t do.  He took another ski and lashed a pair together, but still, no dice. They were too narrow to sit on and too long to control while standing up.

Sherman Poppen

Sherman Poppen

It was a moment later when Muskegon High graduate Sherm Poppen’s decision to grab a water ski, coupled with a few refinements, would change the winter sports world forever. 

Although originally given the name ‘Snurfer,’ this former ‘scrub’ on those Big Red football teams in the late 1940s had invented the snowboard.

How proud Sherm Poppen must be to be recognized in 1995 as the first person inducted in the Snowboarding Hall of Fame in Baniff, Alberta, Canada. 

My, how far this sport has come since the first so-called ‘snowboarding world championship’ held years ago that took place not on the Olympic Slopes of Lake Placid, Nagano Japan, Salt Lake City, Vancouver or Soch, but on Blockhouse Hill in North Muskegon.

Let history books show that only a dozen or so contestants were on hand and the first World Champion was crowned. He was a bartender at the world famous Bear Lake Tavern and his name was Ted Slater.  Maybe the very likeable Slater should also join Poppen in the snowboarding Hall of Fame.

Never in my wildest imagination did I ever envision when they were erecting that wooden luge run at this same Blockhouse Hill complex some 30 years ago, the impact a young Muskegon lad who grew up adjacent to this complex would contribute to the sport of luge.

Mark Grimmette

Mark Grimmette

Mark Grimmette has come a long way from his high school days when I first recall him as an end on those Reeths-Puffer football teams back in the late 1980s.

A five-time Olympian and winner of a silver, as well as a bronze medalist in his sport, Grimmette is now the face of this wonderful winter sport.

It still brings chills down this now aging body that Mark was picked by his USA teammates to be the flag bearer at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver.

So respected by his fellow lugers, Grimmette is now the director for this country’s luge operations as well as the head mentor for this sport in Sochi. 

How proud I was the other night when shortly before I called it a night, there was Lewis Johnson interviewing Mark Grimmette on NBC.

As improbable as this scenario would eventually play out, I likewise never would have envisioned this area producing a head coach for our USA Olympic Hockey team.

When L.C. Walker generously donated the money to build our majestic hockey arena back in 1960, hockey in this area was only played on outdoor ponds, as the Old Mart Dock Arena had been closed to hockey for years.

And now the head coach, following in the footsteps of 1960 Coach John Riley and hockey coaching icon Herb Brooks, is our own Dan Bylsma.

Dan Bylsma

Dan Bylsma

My first recollection of Bylsma was not as a hockey player, but as a slugging performer on those Western Michigan Christian baseball teams from the middle 1980s.

To this day, Bylsma is the only player ever to hit three home runs over the fence at historic Marsh Field as a high school player.

Now he is in the spotlight in Sochi as the head coach of our promising 2014 Olympic Hockey team.

All three of these Muskegon headliners are now entrenched in the Muskegon Area Hall of Fame.  And their legacy just continues to grow!

Thanks guys for making us proud and making us feel warm during this bone chilling winter.

jimmoyes@aol.com

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