Leaning all the way out

NORTHERN hills. A ski jump looming over the snowy backside of a gray northern town. On top of the jump, cold, level with the treetops, a kid, waiting for the wind to calm. He sights the glazed track down to its end: the valley there is no bottom of. The valley where - if he has not fallen - he'll slow, and turn, to what he may dream is the crowd's Olympic applause. For the jumper, like the pilot of a jet, takeoff and landing are crucial. For the ski jumper, who is not only his own pilot but his own plane, and whose flight lands almost as soon as it begins, everything depends on his takeoff. So, too, for a diver or pole-vaulter, whose events are comparably instantaneous. But vaulter and diver start comparatively slowly and, unlike the jumper, can see where they're going to land or splash down. The jumper cannot, as he starts down the steeply concave in-run, see much beyond the takeoff; nor can he see over the knoll to the landing as he approaches the takeoff at some 60 m.p.h.

At such speed, the takeoff is all. Once he tips his long skis down into the in-run chute, the jumper is irretrievably committed. That he could possibly fall on the in-run must not occur to him. He crouches to cut wind resistance in the brief seconds he has to gain velocity for his flight, his eyes fixed on the lip of the takeoff. Beyond that lip is, literally, nothing. He must concentrate every sense to compute the exact instant when he should start his leap, which is itself being completed as his ski-tips reach the lip of what is, suddenly, an abyss. At precisely the right instant he has, by then, with all the power his legs can release, sprung up to gain altitude over the knoll, and begun to dive forward to form his body into an airfoil parallel to the skis now planing under him.

Strength matters, but coordination and timing matter more. Courage is a given. Yet compared to downhill racing, ski jumping is not as dangerous as it looks. Unless the jumper leaps before the takeoff helps catapult him, and air pressure thus catches his tips so that they tend to trip him into a somersault, most falls are simply bad tumbles down the steep landing. The bigger the hill, the more powerful the forces: On jumps designed for 65 meters or more, the duration and height of a jumper's soaring involve him in such subtle control as using his hands as ailerons. Even there, as on smaller jumps where there is less air pressure under his chest and skis, how he times his takeoff is a controlling factor.

Aside from such uncontrollable factors as sudden turbulence, or the terrifying arrival of a stray dog on the out-run, the jumper who rides the air with a quietness balanced by courage is, in effect, home free. On even a small-scale hill, his being airborne gives him what is, both literally and metaphorically, a natural high.

High and free. Not wide. Jumping is not the Whitmanesque free-form flight of hang gliding, but a poem as distilled, formal, and symbolically liberating as a haiku. A jumper's freedom owes to the form his takeoff allows in the air. For an instant, given the speed to which gravity brought him on the in-run, he seems suddenly free of gravity. Gravity will, of course, haul him home near the red line on the landing that warns him not to out-jump the hill. But in the air, if he has released himself into it with due control, a jumper is demonstrably and privately free.

The kid waiting at the top of the in-run knows. Or soon will. He's one of thousands of kids all over Scandinavia and Northern Europe, all over the Soviet Union, Japan, Canada, and America crouching for speed, feeling the air lift them, tumbling down landings, or hearing another kid yell a good word when they turn at the end of the out-run. He's one of the kids out practicing this February afternoon in Brattleboro, Lebanon, Ishpeming, and Duluth, kids who'll in a few years be jumping in the traditional Washington's Birthday events on such big hills as Lake Placid, Steamboat Springs, and Iron Mountain.

I was one of those kids, hopping off bumps when I was 8, building small snow-jumps in a back pasture when I was 10, testing myself on a 20-meter at 12, a 40-meter at 15. Rites of passage, all. I've seen photographs of my jumping that clearly remind me of what a mediocre jumper I mostly was. I often flailed the air and, as my courage wobbled, fell. Once, after the previous two jumpers had fallen, I steeled myself not to, and held the Middlebury hill record for five minutes, until a first-rate jumper leaped farther with a grace I usually lacked. I was average, at best. I was often scared, not on natural in-runs, but on high trestles I could barely make myself climb.

I have nightmares about those trestles still. But when I have lain awake with larger fears, or have been painfully aware of my body's limits, I have also known in some innermost part of myself that - among hundreds and hundreds of times on an in-run - I did, perhaps five or eight times, hit the takeoff so perfectly that I did not pull back but leaned all the way out on my luck, and once was so still in the air that I not only saw the crowd, and a girl in the crowd, but sailed somehow out of myself and, for an eternal instant, jumping, could see myself jumping, and knew I saw myself clear.

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