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Origins of the Birkie Presentation at 2016 Race

By U.S. Ski & Snowboard
February, 9 2016

HAYWARD, WI (Feb. 9, 2016) – Race participants and fans at this year’s American Birkebeiner cross country ski race will have an opportunity to learn more about the great history of the Birkie. On the eve of this year’s race, longtime Birkebeiner public relations leader and skiing historian Tom Kelly of the U.S. Ski Team will take fans back to the origins of the race, regaling the crowd with some of the legendary stories of the Birkie’s roots.

The presentation is set for Thursday, February 18 from 7:00 to 8:00 p.m. at Hayward’s Park Center Theater. The presentation is a joint production of the American Birkebeiner Ski Foundation and the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association. Admission is free but donations are accepted at the door.

Each February, more than 10,000 cross country skiers gather in Cable and Hayward, Wisconsin to take part in the Birkie, North America’s greatest ski race. For more than 40 years, the Birkie has helped shape the lives of tens of thousands of participants.

Kelly’s multimedia presentation will take the audience back in time to the early days of the Birkie, with insightful looks into the thinking of race founder Tony Wise.

Birkie founder Tony Wise poses with Norway’s Gry Oftedal and American Allison Owen-Spencer.

The Birkie was the vision of Hayward native Tony Wise, who discovered skiing as a soldier serving in Germany in World War II. After the war, he brought the concept home to found the Telemark Ski Area near Cable, WI in 1947, and later evolved it into a cross country ski race through the northwoods of Wisconsin in 1973. Wise called the race the American Birkebeiner, patterned after the Birkebeiner Rennet ski race held each year between the villages of Rena and Lillehammer, Norway. His vision shaped a community, a sport and brought the world together with the founding of the Worldloppet in 1979, an international sports federation of cross country skiing marathons. Since then, over 2.6 million skiers have started Worldloppet races.

“Tony Wise was a remarkable leader who was steadfast in his vision and a true pioneer of skiing,” said Kelly. “It’s especially impressive today to look back 30 to 40 years and grasp how much impact he had on cross country skiing. His innovation has had a direct impact on the growth of the sport.”

Kelly, now a vice president with the U.S. Ski Team, served as public relations director for the race and the Worldloppet ski series in their early years. He also wrote the 1984 book Birkie Fever, which documented the American Birkebeiner’s first decade. He served closely with Wise, whose vision and ingenuity helped create a ski race that has become a lifestyle for tens of thousands of participants and became a landmark event in northwestern Wisconsin and an iconic festival of cross country skiing.

The famed painting of the Birkebeiners rescuing the child prince is iconic to race participants.

“The American Birkebeiner Ski Foundation is always seeking to further our mission and inspire generations of skiers,” said Ben Popp, ABSF executive director. “Without Tony Wise’s vision, the Birkie wouldn’t be what it is today.”

The presentation will foreshadow some of the early days of the race that will be documented in the planned Tony Wise Museum of the American Birkebeiner, now in its final planning stages. The museum will enhance the American Birkebeiner Ski Foundation’s mission of supporting healthy and active lifestyles among people of all ages and abilities. Throughout the planned museum, future visitors will find an emphasis on the stories and legacy of Wise, the Birkebeiner and the history of the legendary Cable-to-Hayward Birkie race.

The free presentation is open to any Birkie racers or fans. No advance tickets are necessary, but attendees are encouraged to arrive early to ensure a seat. The presentation was shown last August to a full house at the Park Center Theater.

About the American Birkebeiner® Ski Foundation and Birkie® Events
Located near Hayward and Cable, Wisconsin, the American Birkebeiner Ski Foundation, a 501(c)(3) organization, is known for its signature American Birkebeiner Ski Marathon held each February. Today, the Birkie brand has grown to encompass a year round lifestyle that provides healthy, active events for thousands of outdoor fitness enthusiasts of all levels. From the iconic Birkie ski race to the Birkie Trail Run & Trek, and Fat Bike Birkie race, the ABSF and the Birkie Trail attract skiers, runners, bikers, trekkers, and hikers, from casual day-trippers to elite superstars. 

Birkie. Ski. Run. Bike. Live!  Visit to learn more.

About Tom Kelly
A native of Madison, Wisconsin, Tom Kelly worked as a publicist and public relations director for Tony Wise from 1975 to 1984. His 1984 book Birkie Fever traced the origins and 10-year history of the fabled American Birkebeiner. As PR director for Telemark, Kelly was one of Wise’s closest managers, working side-by-side with him during the race’s early years and through the evolution of the Worldloppet. Kelly’s travel company, Worldwide Nordic U.S.A., introduced hundreds of skiers to the international series. Today, Kelly remains an active leader in skiing as vice president, communications for the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association as well as being a foremost historian on the sport, serving as chairman of the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame and on the International Ski Federation’s PR and Mass Media Committee.