"I look down that big jump and it does not scare me," he says, teeth clenched in a sort of savage joy. "It makes me want to jump the more. It's beautiful; it calls me, that thing."
Wirkola wears elevator lifts on his jumping skis—not because he is built like Mickey Rooney but because all good jumpers wear them—that pitch him forward over the tips. On a flat surface it would be practically impossible to stand on them. But on the inrun it gets him properly set up.
And even to the amateur eye, the difference is plain: where other jumpers uncoil at 60 mph and leap slightly upward, Wirkola comes roaring down tucked into the tightest muscular ball anyone has ever seen and then uncoils straight out into the world like a bullet. And where other jumpers break position, the Little Bear floats down, following the curve of the hill until it seems he is a cinch to land on his left eyebrow. He holds and holds and holds until the crowd starts to wince like some giant animal below and, at the last second, smoothly brings his feet around from somewhere and gets them under him.
Is it a special style? A tactic? A strategy? A bird, a plane? No.
Simple: "It is because I hate to have it all end," he says.
And if you think that sort of routine does wonders for judges and the crowds, it does even more for Wirkola. It sets him afire. "When you come down from a perfect jump," he says, steel-blue eyes slit half shut, "you are only angry that you didn't stay up there longer."
"From the top I look down the icy tracks," he says, "and I become very anxious to jump. Then I run down the inrun a few paces, fast as I can, and bounce into a low, low crouch. My chest is practically on the skis. I need a great deal of speed. And when the edge of the jump comes I am going maybe 110 kilometers an hour, and I leap straight out, pushing with my legs.
"One must not uncoil," he says, "until one is about to start floating. And then! Suddenly you meet a flow of air coming up the hill. You can feel it hit your belly as you uncoil. Wonderful! And you actually ascend slightly before you start to descend. You lay out over your skis, arms back at your sides, and lie perfectly still.
"If you give in just the slightest bit or make a frightened move, your skis will come up against your body and it is like slamming on the brakes. And you start to fall, too soon, too soon. I do not even become aware of the crowd until I land, and then I hear them roar and I suddenly know they're there."
Wirkola was not always a jumper; not any more than anyone was a sky-diver until he bailed out of a plane. And even at that he was obviously born, not made. Until 1964 he was a Nordic combined man and has only been a jumper-come-lately.