Are we talking spectacular suicides? Nope, ski jumping. Norwegians excel at it, and Japanese are good at it, and America's Sarah Hendrickson was world champ in 2013. And while all jumpers float, beneath that elfin aerial existence are some finely conditioned athletes. Geez, they gotta trudge about 180 stairs just to get to the departure level.
(And this year’s Four Hills Tournament – the Mecca for ski jumper departures – takes place from Dec 29th to Jan 6th.)
The jumpers train all year round for what is roughly a 20 second, 650 foot leap, off that equivalent 64 story building. Wind plays a huge part. Ski jumpers want to jump into a head wind. Gives them extra lift. The ride, too, is easier to control which helps them earn points with the judges. No matter that the “in-run” track they ski down before they soar into the sky looks impossibly narrow to navigate, but they navigate it nicely, with shoulders front, arms straight back, hands held back tight against the body. That body is clothed in a slightly loose suit, which also helps with lift. Practice incorporating squats, plyometrics, and imitation training jumps (usually into the arms of a coach) helps build that form. The form, at the precise moment of takeoff, has the skis immediately take a “V” shape, thanks to cocking of the ankles, with tips wide and heels close. The “V” style really overtook the parallel ski style of flight – in distance, if not style, in the early 1990’s.
The aforementioned plyometrics training, wherein “shock” to the body comes due to muscular eccentric contraction in landing and concentric contraction in jumping has come in handy, not only for ski jumpers but for short dunkers too. Brandon Todd is 5’5” plyometrics devotee who can stuff the basketball down.
Now, Carina Vogt, come down from your ladder, natural high, ski jump altitude, and Olympian pantheon pedestal. Take a bow. You are, of course, the first woman to win the women’s ski jump Olympic Gold Medal. The Sochi Olympics was the first for women’s ski jumping. (The men have been at it, Olympically, since 1924.) We have many questions of course for you, Carina, but the main one is who decided the color coordination for your gold medal ceremonies clothing?
Now that our eyes have stopped revolving…have you, Carina, finally stopped trembling? After all, you had never won a World Cup event before your once-in-a-lifetime Russian roulette ski jumping victory.
Quite a far cry from favored Sara Takanashi of Japan. She readily admits nerves got the better of her at Sochi. She finished fourth and this after winning 10 of 13 World Cups. But remember that though World Cup events are lofty – they don’t get the massive media attention as do Olympics, so no wonder even seasoned and successful athletes blow a gasket on the biggest stage, now and then.
And watch out for that first seasonal jump in the snow. Norwegian ski jumper Phillip Sjoeen splattered during his maiden voyage this season. Fortunately, he wasn’t seriously hurt, other than for his pride, perhaps. But watching the jumpers ‘save’ their bodies while in air, arms pedaling vigorously to get their feet under them, to prevent harrowing crashes, is almost as impressive to watch as is a record jump. Of course sickening falls, as Ulf Findeisen of old East Germany experienced, do happen.
For those of us too scared to soar (or smash) there is an online version of the sport. Called Ski Jump Mania “you can live the life of a ski jumper…and set new hill records on famous ski jumping hills…” Sign me up…
And if I was a female, American, with grits and guts - I’d sign up with the “Fly Girls” program. Basically it’s not only a bridge, but a feeder program, epitomized by the monthly long development camp held at Utah Olympic Park between club level jumpers aged 12 to 16 and the national team jumpers.
But, generally, no matter what country you’re from if you’re a tyke, usually for the first couple of years, you’ll jump off little hills. Once the young feet are wet, then the big hills are next.
The best body shape for ski jumpers, men or women? Thin and light. But with height, and wind, and ski lengths all a factor in performance, there is a complicated method to ensure that those light as a feather don’t use super long skis – because they’ll fly forever and win every event hands down, that is, if they ever were to land. One guy who never seems to land is Swiss star, Simon Ammann. Watch his jumps. See how perfectly still his body, with his head nearly touching his ski tips, is while in flight. He won four Olympic gold medals. And here’s a platinum performance world-record ski jump by Norway’s Johan Remen Evensen. He flew ¼ kilometer or 808 feet back in 2011. Just landed now. Just kidding.
But we are not kidding when we say colorful, graceful, artful, and delightful are the best descriptions of ski jumping, although thrilling and chilling will aptly depict it too. All of us who watch it secretly wish we had the nerve to try it. The jumpers are as beautiful as eagles and as stately in appearance but, hey have to say, they’ve got a better looking flight – young or old - to boot!