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To a spectator, it is almost beyond belief that ski jumpers are ever in total control of what they do. At the start of a run down the 90-meter jump (the 90-meters refers to the distance between the takeoff and a point 90 meters downhill, near where the slope begins to flatten out), a skier tucks himself into a crouch, arms positioned behind him, so that his center of gravity is low and rearward. As he approaches the takeoff point, he's traveling about 60 mph, and if he executes his takeoff properly, there will be no loss of speed when he becomes airborne. The lift-off motion is less of a jump than a smooth and sudden transfer of his center of gravity to someplace up and out, and—whoosh—he is flying, man as rocket, a perfectly immobile body making a terrific rushing noise through the air, body angled forward over the skis, mouth open, eyes wide, for 100 meters or more. The really good jumpers, the Jim Denneys, touch down reluctantly, sliding one ski forward and dipping a knee back in the classic telemark landing, arms away from the sides, finally, for balance. The others come down and embrace the snow with their skis. There is no simple way to explain the scoring of the sport—there are style points and some things called a P point, a table point and a K point—but, essentially, the longest jumper wins, if he doesn't fall. "You always work to get to the bottom of the hill," says Denney. "That's your goal every time you take off. In big competitions, if you get the longest ride, you're going to get the most style points."
The entire ride in the air lasts less than four seconds, and for every millisecond of that time, the jumper's movement must be carefully controlled, almost mathematical. The aerodynamics of ski jumping are such that the angle of the skis should point 20 degrees above the line of the flight, and the angle of the body should be 20 degrees above the skis. This ratio gives an effect that one jumper compares to sticking your hand out a car window and angling it so that the tips of the fingers are cutting through the air instead of being caught by the rush. Ski jumping is not speed and spring against gravity; the jumpers are kitelike, riding on air. They are seldom higher than 10 feet above the ground during the flight, and in optimum conditions a gentle wind is blowing in their faces to help keep them aloft.
"You don't sense weightlessness," says Denney. "A double Ferris wheel—that's weightlessness. This is more like an airplane. You feel lift. You're always riding on air, working the air. You put your arms against your sides with the palms forward because you're trying to increase your surface area. That's the fun part, the flying."
Denney has flown where no American ever has: namely, to two European championships. In 1977, a year after he established himself as the top U.S. jumper at the Innsbruck Olympics, Denney became the first American to win an all-around title outside his country, by finishing first in the Norwegian Ski Week festival. Then, over the course of three weeks last winter, he finished third in the 90-meter competition at Lake Placid's pre-Olympics and won the 70-meter championship at the Salpausselka Games in Lahti, Finland—routing the competition, which included Finnish jumper Pentti Kokkonen, the top man in the world in 1979, by 25 points. "He not only beat those guys on their own turf," says teammate Jeff Davis of Steamboat Springs, Colo., "he beat them bad. In years before, the guys on the team had the attitude that those Europeans were unbeatable. Jimmy never felt that way. And guess what—they're not."
Like Denney, Olympic Coach Kotlarek is from Duluth, which is now the unquestioned capital of ski jumping in the U.S. This is true despite the fact that you can throw a baseball from the bottom to the top of the largest hill within 50 miles of Duluth. But the locals, largely of Scandinavian descent, are resourceful souls, and Kotlarek can recall building ski jumps as a kid by piling up Christmas trees and covering them with snow. As a result, he and his friends never did much jumping until after New Year's.
"Jimmy was right on the numbers in Lahti," Kotlarek says. "Somebody would have had to jump off the wall to beat him that day. When he's on, he's like that. A machine. Believe me, in this sport, all the Europeans take him only too seriously."
After years of domination by Norway and Finland, ski jumping is in a state of flux; Denney has no clear favorite to beat, nor is there a country that's currently preeminent in the sport—although East Germany is strong. In Olympic 70-meter and 90-meter competitions since 1964, the eight gold medals have been won by eight different countries: Norway, Russia, Poland, Austria, Finland, Czechoslovakia, Japan and East Germany. Given a certain familiarity with the hill and the advantage of being surrounded by friends and American food, Denney has as good a shot at the gold as any of a dozen jumpers—though the pressure of being the host-country favorite could work against him. There is something about an uptight body that the air will not tolerate or carry. "If none of us did anything in Placid," says Davis, "it would really be a big setback, not just for Jimmy but for the whole jumping program. But Jimmy doesn't feel pressure. He just doesn't let it bother him. A lot of us go up the hill and try to beat somebody and end up beating ourselves. He just tries to ski his best every time. That's where he's way ahead of us—in the mental department. Athletically, he's not super gifted, but I think his understanding of ski jumping is gifted. He's made himself good by training hard and working at understanding the sport."
"It's funny," says Kotlarek. "Today Jimmy's the ambassador of the sport in this country. But four years ago he was the quiet kid who sat in the corner and was ridiculed for having a weird training regimen."
That regimen is the creation of Shirley Finberg-Sullivan, a 4'10¾" dynamo. It has another name: ballet.
Finberg-Sullivan is a ballet instructor who minors in training athletes like ski jumpers and scullers, and if you care to argue, she can quote you chapter and verse as to why ballet dancers are the finest-conditioned athletes in the world. If you're still not convinced, ask Denney. "That's tough stuff, don't let anybody fool you," he says. "Ballet dancers work harder than any athletes."