At athlete meetings before each Freeskiing World Tour event, Jim Norm Jack would get his turn on the microphone. In an overcrowded room that usually reeked of ski boots, Jim, the FWT's head judge, would start his speech on judging, safety, and the venue. His monologues were informational, sure, but they were also a sort of pep rally for the athletes. Jim spoke animatedly, his arms waving and his face lighting up, referring to the events as "celebrations," not contests, and the people in the room as "family," not competitors.
His words made rookies feel welcome to the brotherhood and made veterans feel like they were coming home to a family they hadn't seen in a while. Everyone paid attention to Jim, the most passionate man in the room.
Three months ago, on February 19, Jim was killed in an avalanche in the backcountry near Stevens Pass, Wash. In his passing, the ski community at large lost their head judge, their mascot, and a close friend. Jim was not only instrumental to the IFSA, the Freeskiing World Tour and the Junior Freeskiing Tour from a functional standpoint; he also personified the spirit and atmosphere of the tours. In many ways, Jim was the soul of the tour. Without him, the IFSA and FWT families are forced to face the daunting question, "What now?"
"The amount of passion that Jim had and what he committed to the sport, it's going to take five people to fill his shoes," says IFSA president Rob Greener. In addition to his role as FWT head judge, he also handled judges' training and competition services -- overseeing and supporting event development across the country.
The amount of passion that Jim had and what he committed to the sport, it's going to take five people to fill his shoes.
--Rob Greener, IFSA president
He was also playing a big role in increasing the amount of competitions available for junior skiers. With up to 40 junior events slated for next season, Greener sees the IFSA Junior Series as one of the biggest voids created by Jim's death. "We want to have five or six head judges next year that will be able to train, travel, and help out at the events," Greener says, adding that they're currently in the process of finalizing who those candidates will be.
Beyond the growth of junior freeskiing, the 2012/2013 anticipated merger between the Freeskiing World Tour and the Freeride World Tour is a realization of a long held vision of Jim's: a true world tour, one in which Jim was slated to play a key judging roll. Although the details of the merger are yet to be released, negotiations seem to be on track for a six-stop tour in North America and Europe, where top athletes from both tours will compete in one series. This merger would represent the highest level, most prolific big mountain competition series ever organized.
"In hindsight, after February 19, moving into our next FWT event, it was like, 'How is it going to feel, what's it going be like?' There was definitely some uncertainty there," says FWT Director of Competition Bryan Barlow. "The first event that we went to was Snowbird, and everybody really pulled together despite the mourning that was going on, and celebrated the passion that Jim had for freeskiing, and how he enhanced peoples' skiing and experiences at the events."
As the next chapter of competitive big mountain skiing is written, Barlow acknowledges the roll that Jim played in getting to this point, and contemplates how the tour will go on without him. "Right now we're mapping out what Jim Jack's roll would have been this winter with the FWT merger, and then we'll try to break it up as we can and give (the responsibility) to the right person," says Barlow. "Unifying the tours and taking the sport to the next level was his vision, and he would be very happy right now with the direction we are going."
At the end of the contest day -- when the scorecards and award ceremonies were in the past -- Jim was that familiar face that you'd see in a foreign landscape and immediately feel at home. His beard, his smile, his fun loving and goofy attitude, those things were comforting whether you'd met him once or known him for years.
From pre-dawn gondola rides in Canada to late-night dance parties in Argentina, Jim had a relentless enthusiasm for the sport, and for life. While the man with three first names might be gone, the family that he nurtured will carry his torch on, lighting it early in the morning and burning it late into the night.