As Andreas Felder slowly climbs the stairs that lead to the top of the 70-meter ski jump in Lahti, Finland, one of the regular stops on the World Cup tour, he pauses occasionally to stare at the slope that angles sharply downward. Every minute or so he watches another apparently crazy young man on skis sail past, sometimes like a bird, sometimes like an anvil. Finally, Felder takes his place at the top of the run-in and prepares to set sail himself, hoping, like the others, to cut loose and fly.
Felder, 25, is half of Austria's spectacular ski jumping duo, the other 50% being 23-year-old Ernst Vettori, Felder's childhood chum from the Tyrolean town of Absam, which lies just to the east of Innsbruck at the base of the mountain chain known as the Nordkette. Together, Felder and Vettori—sometimes called the Ski Twins or even, collectively, "Feldori" on the World Cup tour because of their closeness—are Austria's best bets to pull in a gold medal at Calgary in either the 70-or 90-meter ski jumping event.
As Felder gains speed on the run-in, he sinks lower and lower into the bombs-away tuck of the out there jumper. He wears a glistening flying suit, helmet, goggles, gloves and boots that are fastened to his long, wide skis only at the toes. Other than that he is unprotected and unarmed for his entry into space. The ski jumper has no poles, brakes or parachutes. Once he hops off the metal bar at the start and drops into the iced ruts of the ramp, he is as committed as a falling bomb. Mike Holland. America's leading jumper, says, "Ski jumping is a lot like playing poker, except in poker you can fold."
If it were an option, Felder should fold now. The wind here at this World Cup meet is gusting and swirling wildly. The 90-meter competition has been canceled because of the danger the wind presents. "Some hills are better for me. and some better for Andi," Vettori had said not long before the 70-meter event began. "But if the wind is strong, we all have great problems."
Felder shoots off the end of the ramp, leaning into the turbulent air above the white valley. His skis clatter and his suit hisses as he tries to find the perfect angle to fly into the wind. He doesn't find it. Instead, his head goes down, the wind pounds him like a wave crashing on a bodysurfer, and he flails his arms in a vain attempt to regain balance.
He hits the slope chest-first, his head slamming into the snow, his skis flying. Medics swarm up onto the hill. Felder is placed on a stretcher and taken to a hospital.
A few hours later he has been released and is lying on his bed at the Hotel Lahti. His left ankle is heavily taped, and his face is cut and swollen. He was unconscious when the medics got to him, but he says he feels fine now. "That was my first crash since one at Lake Placid in 1983," he says. "But that one wasn't my fault. It was in the summer, and the wind took me, and I didn't land on the plastic matting that's used when there's no snow." Both of his eyes are blackening, and he holds a bag of ice over his right cheek. This crash was his fault, he says. "I was too far out. There was, like...nothing under me. But it's not a problem. I'll jump again at the next meet." Less than a week later, in fact, Felder will be back in competition.
On the bed on the other side of the nightstand lies Vettori. His head is bouncing in time with the beat of rock music coming from a tape deck. It's a Hitachi with a "3-D Super Woofer." Vettori won it last year in Yugoslavia in a 90-meter event. "He has already won two refrigerators this season," says Felder.
"And a microwave oven," adds Vettori. "And today I won a, what do you call it, a hot thing—an iron. Yes, an iron."
The young men relax—one battered, the other sympathizing—linked by friendship and their efforts to fly. For when their technique comes together and the winds cooperate by blowing steadily in their faces to give them greater lift, they do, indeed, soar like birds.