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Take a Trip down Memory Lane: Barrel Jumping on Speedskates
Posted by tedwards On Thu 23 Apr, 2015
You’re probably familiar with the X-Games. Maybe you’ve watched athletes pull off double back flips in freestyle motocross on TV, or snowboarders crank out backside triple corks above the halfpipe. But did you know that speedskaters were once involved in an extreme sport all their own? Long before the X-Games, speed skaters not only competed in traditional races as they do today, but some even jumped over barrels on the ice. (Imagine doing that at your home rink after practice!) Better yet, throw a flaming hoop in the middle of those barrels. Think you’d be brave enough to make the jump? For Chuck Burke and Rich Widmark, it was all just another day on the ice for them.

A Little History

If you’ve never seen old photos or video footage of barrel jumping, just picture doing the long jump on speedskates, and you won’t be too far off. If you lived in Holland in the early 19th-century and liked to skate long distances, chances are you would have competed in races that included jumping over obstacles such as fences, walls, and gates. Fast-forward to speedskating competitions in North America in the 1920’s. For entertainment after races, skaters would take the barrels used to mark the boundaries of a course and lay them on their sides, then see how many they could jump over. Circling the ice a few times to pick up speed, skaters would approach the barrels at about 30MPH, then hurl themselves over the barrels. As barrel jumping became more popular, wooden barrels were soon replaced with barrels made of fiberglass and fiberboard.

In 1925, speed skater Ed Lamy set the first known record for barrel jumping, clearing 14 barrels. Barrel jumping didn’t gain popularity, however, until the 1950’s, when the first Barrel Jumping World Championships was televised by ABC Wide World of Sports. Rich Widmark said, “Barrel Jumping was a made-for-TV sport….Irving Jaffee, who was a former Olympic speedskater, was the Winter Sports Director at Grossinger’s Resort Hotel in New York. He was also a friend of Roone Arlidge from ABC. And when ABC started up Wide World of Sports, they collaborated and started the World Barrel Jumping Championships, which ABC televised for many years.”

How Chuck and Rich Found the Sport

Rich Widmark grew up in Chicago and skated with the Pierce Speedskating Club. He was introduced to barrel jumping by Terry Brown, a former Olympic speed skater. He said, “Growing up, Terry was older than I was, but I eventually competed against him in speed skating when I was a senior. And later on, he [became] the World Barrel Jumping Champion for four years in a row. And I thought if I could beat him in racing…then I might be able to take up barrel jumping as well. While I was in the Navy…[we had] a local ice rink where we started jumping over cardboard boxes. Then eventually, we got some barrels, and that’s how I got started jumping barrels.” Rich went on to become the World Barrel Jumping Champion two years in a row.

Chuck Burke, on the other hand, started out figure skating. He said, “I figure skated from the time I was 6 years old until I was about 18. I would figure skate all week, and then speedskate on the weekends. As kids, [my friends] and I used to jump over everything. We would see how many axels we could do on figure skates, and how high we could jump. So I had a little bit of jumping experience.” He went on to compete in the 1952 and 1956 Olympics in speed skating. He said, “After my speedskating career…I still skated with two of my ex-competitors, Rich Widmark and Jim Campbell. Jim managed a skating rink, and we used to go over there in the evenings. One night Rich said, ‘They have the Barrel Jumping World Championships in New York, and they’re looking for American barrel jumpers.’ It was mostly a French-Canadian sport. So the three of us decided that we were going to go and compete. I went out there for about seven years in a row. It really was a lot of fun.”   

Think You Have What it Takes?

When I asked Chuck what it takes to jump over barrels on speedskates, he joked, “Well, you go as fast and you can and when the barrels come, you pick up your feet. And when the barrels are gone, you put your feet back down.” Then he added, “Actually, there’s a lot more to it than that.…It takes physical ability and mental preparation, just like any other sport. It takes skating ability, of course. And if [your] timing isn’t exactly right, then it all falls apart.”

Besides skating ability and proper timing, having nerves of steel never hurts. Irving Jaffee, who organized the first World Barrel Jumping Championships, once said, “I won two Olympic gold medals as a speed skater, and I’ve played some hockey, but I’d never have the guts to try barrel jumping. It requires a lot of courage. Why, some of those boys are going 50 miles an hour when they’re over the barrels….These guys are wild men.” And the late boxing champion Barney Ross was quoted as saying, “I’d rather take 15 rounds of punishment in the ring than do what those barrel jumpers do.”

What About Injuries?

If you watch old videos of barrel jumping on YouTube, one of the first thoughts that comes to mind is that it doesn’t look very safe. In fact, when a representative of the Canadian Barrel Jumping Federation flew to Lillehammer in 1992 to give a live demonstration, the demonstration was ultimately cancelled; Olympic Officials opted to watch a video of barrel jumping highlights instead. Lillehammer Olympic Organizing Committee spokesman Tor Aune said, “It appeared to be a brutal sort of sport. Everybody seems to fall on their backside.” But according to Rich Widmark, it’s not as dangerous as it looks. “Sometimes, the ice comes up pretty hard or awkwardly, and there are a few injuries involved. But if you land on the barrels themselves, they kind of cushion [your] fall. Of course, the object is not to hit the barrels. But eventually, everybody does, because you end up adding more barrels until you don’t clear them all.”

When I asked Chuck if he’d ever suffered any injuries as a result of barrel jumping, he said, “Only once….I had a bad jump and I landed hard on my right foot. I sprained my ankle, [so I] couldn’t compete.” As for Rich, he “never had anything broken—just bumps and bruises.” He added, “They had a requirement to wear some kind of pads, but everybody kept the pads to a minimum, because you had to lug those over the barrels [when you jumped].”

The Barrel Busters

Along with competing in barrel jumping, Rich, Chuck, and Jim Campbell put together a barrel jumping act called “The Barrel Busters”. Rich said, “After Chuck, Jim and I started competing, the three of us barnstormed around the Midwest with the barrel jumping act that we put together….Jim has since passed on, but Chuck and I are still friends. But the barrels collect dust in the meantime.”

In reminiscing about the Barrel Busters, Chuck said, “The three of us would jump through a fire hoop on our skates. It was this big hoop wrapped in rags. We would soak the rags in kerosene, then [light them on fire]. One time, we did our show down at St. Louis Silver Skates. After the show, we put the fire hoop out and put it on top of the station wagon. On the way home, we were driving down the highway, and these people are passing us and pointing. The [fire hoop] had started on fire on top of our station wagon. So we had to pull over and roll it in the snow to put it out.”

He said that on another occasion, “We were invited to do our barrel jumping act at the grand opening of a new skating rink in Milwaukee. So we did our act [with] our big fire hoop…then we put the fire out when the show was over. And I told the other guys, ‘Hey, look up at the ceiling.’ There was a big black mark from the fire. So I thought, ‘We’d better get out of here!’ And every year for many years, I’d go back to that rink for different skating meets. And I would look up at that black mark on the ceiling and laugh, [because] nobody knew how it got there.”

A Thing of the Past

Rich, Chuck, and Jim traveled the country performing their ice show for about 10 years. By the time they retired their barrels and fire hoop in the late 70’s, the sport of barrel jumping had run its course. Chuck said, “It was fun. It was a good time in our lives.”

*The current world record for barrel jumping, 18 barrels, was set in 1981 by Yvon Jolin of Canada.

Sources

Anthony, Leslie. “Olympic Wishlist: Bring Back the Barrel Jump.” February 11, 2014. Accessed 4/22/15

Danna, Jeff. “Former barrel jumper skates his way into Northbrook Sports Hall of Fame.” February 22, 2012. Chicago Tribune. Accessed 4/22/15

Levinson, David & Karen Christensen. Encyclopedia of World Sport: From Ancient Times to the Present. Oxford University Press. July 27, 1999.

Weiskopf, Herm. “Roll out a Barrel and Some Daredevil Will Jump It.” April 3, 1967. Accessed 4/22/15


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