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In the dangerous and demanding world of international ski jumping, each competitor finds his mind riveted on two distant goals. One, obviously, is to jump farther than anyone else. This he may do. The other is to make the perfect jump, to attain that unwavering symmetry of style which will receive the maximum score from the five judges. This, by all the power of logic and the traditions of the sport, he may not do. For no man can be expected to achieve perfection while hurtling off an icy platform at 60 mph to land some 100 yards away, subject en route to all the vagaries of wind, fog, his own fear and the normal prejudices of the presiding judges. And, indeed, no man ever had achieved perfection until one year ago when Norway's Toralf Engan executed a leap of such artistry and power that the astounded judges gave him the highest score recorded in modern jumping history. Everyone conceded this was, indeed, the ultimate.
In his search for perfection, Engan had to overcome a crippling case of nerves while toughening his muscles until both mind and body became as hard as his hickory skis. Along the way he won an unprecedented string of championships and restored to his country the pre-eminence in jumping which had been lost to the Finns 10 years ago. Now, because of his flawless skill, because of the fierce concentration born of a score of years pursuing that perfect jump, Toralf Engan is an overwhelming favorite to win both the special jumping events at the Innsbruck Olympics.
In 1962 Engan took the almost impossible total of 24 out of 27 meets, including the world championship at Zakopane, Poland. Last year he compiled 17 victories, including an all-important triumph over East Germany's 1960 Olympic champion, Helmut Recknagel, on Innsbruck's Bergisel Hill, where the gold medal will be contested.
Because of Engan, Norwegians feel a renewed burst of national pride. There are 10,000 ski jumps of all sizes in Norway and all in good use. "Every time a small boy sets out for a small jump, he is a small Engan," says one Norwegian. Girls smother their bedroom walls with his pictures. Anything Engan does becomes news. His biography, On the Top, became a bestseller. Crowds turn out to watch him practice on the world-famous Holmenkollen jump at Oslo, even in the freezing night that makes the city glitter like an open jewel box.
Norway's national hero is 27 years old, a solid, 5-foot 6-inch, 143-pound package of tightly controlled emotion. He was born and lives in Holonda, a small, pleasant, remote rural village near Trondheim. Engan works in Trondheim for a sports equipment dealer and is informally engaged to a blonde clothing-store clerk named Elin Halvorsen. "I will marry," he says, "when I have the time."
Toralf began to ski in the woods around home at 3. By 7 he was jumping on skis left behind by the German army of occupation. When his father hit it lucky in a lottery, he bought Toralf his second pair of skis, and at 13 Toralf won the county championship. In 1955 he went off the big Holmenkollen Hill and won the national junior championship. By all outward indications, he should have then leaped right on to bigger prizes. But Norway's vast army of jumping experts, including the coaches in Engan's own ski club, dismissed him as a future champion because of his painfully obvious nerves. Jumpers have a deep devil inside that drives them to a kind of ice-cold fury before a start. Engan had this devil, but he was unable to control it. Before every meet he threw up his breakfast. His concentration was poor, his mind so tense and preoccupied that his jumps were sloppy. Furthermore, under the often haphazard training provided by his ski club coaches, Engan simply was not physically strong enough.
"When I was with the group," he explains, "and followed the basic training program, I found that after some events I felt weak. I told the trainers that I wanted to coach myself and try my own methods."
For two years Engan stopped jumping and put himself on a punishing program of muscle-building that he still follows. In the summer he plays soccer and dives from a springboard. All year round, four or five times a week, he does deep knee bends with a 100-pound weight across his shoulders. With a 30-pound sack of sand on his back, he hops on alternate feet up stadium steps, then jumps, feet together, over 3-foot-7-inch-high hurdles. His legs became so powerful that now, from a standing position, he can broad-jump 9 feet and high-jump 4� feet. "Unlike most Norwegians," says a countryman, "Toralf has discipline."
As he whipped his body into shape Engan also polished his jumping technique, adopting the winning style of the Finns. From the top of a big hill like the Bergisel or the Holmenkollen, the inrun drops some 280 feet, a narrow, 42-degree pitch of crusty snow that has been watered and packed into sheer glaze ice. Engan began to master the frightening business of the quick push-step onto the inrun, the tight crouch with body curled against his knees as he gathered speed for the mile-a-minute takeoff. As he flashed off the lip, he learned to throw his body far forward, his back slightly bent in the shape of an airplane wing section. As he hurtled outward, Engan's nose came to within mere inches of his ski tips, his arms at his sides so his hands could guide his flight like the ailerons of a plane. Just as important, he began to get real power in his takeoff. Today his extreme push off the lip is so strong that he may at any time overjump the steep landing slope on any hill, and to protect himself he frequently has to step onto the inrun farther down than the normal starting point.
In the discipline of physical training Engan also developed the mental muscle to hold his nerves in check. He has learned to withdraw into himself completely before a meet. In the last hours before a jump he spends 30 minutes silently waxing his skis. Then he inspects his boots and bindings, and meticulously goes over the jump in his mind. "I am criticized," he says, "because I don't talk to others before jumping, but I am using these things to help me concentrate. I try to control my body right down to my feet. I have been teaching myself this since I was 15."