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The morning air is purest Finnish—there's not another place in the world where the days are delivered so bitingly crisp, scrubbed clean by the winds out of Lapland. On all sides, out to the horizon, dozens of steel-blue lakes lie surrounded by thick pine forests; far below one can see the Vuokatti Sports Institute and a few farmhouses, looking like an assembly of toy log houses. This is near-wilderness; Helsinki lies 350 miles to the south. A visitor may look out in wonder, but all of this is a familiar sight to the small group of men gathered here, and they pay no attention to the scenery. Instead, there's a subcurrent of high spirits among them, a sense of occasion. At last their autumn has ended, and these Finns are back to ski-jumping full time.
Finland has traditionally been a top power in Nordic skiing, if not always in jumping: In the 45 world and Olympic championships at 90 and 70 meters since 1924, Norway has won the most, 19, and Finland is second, with seven. But since 1954 the power base has been shifting to Finland. Today, the world's premier jumper is a Finn, Matti Nykänen, and he and seven compatriots have come to this lonely training camp filled with great purpose.
The old 70-meter jump perches on the very crest of the hill. It looks exceedingly rickety, its wooden siding faded and wind-scrubbed, the entire contraption supported by an intricate spider web of rusty iron tubing. Inside the superstructure, wooden stairs go 120 feet up. At the top, one can see the small figure of a jumper. Even from a distance it's plain that he's impatient; he waves one arm vigorously and yells something that's lost in the wind. Down at the takeoff point, Niilo Halonen, the Finnish Nordic team's director, stands bundled in layers of warmups. He checks to make sure an assistant has the portable video camera ready, then turns and waves back up the hill. Finally Halonen grins. "Now you will see Matti Nykänen jump," he says.
The figure high above leaps onto the two refrigerated ski tracks, gives a sort of bounce and sinks into the jumper's familiar crouch—his weight forward, chest almost resting on his knees. The skis make a harsh rasp that grows steadily louder as they approach: when the jumper reaches the takeoff point, the clock times him at 52.7 mph. Then he uncoils into the air with a dull slap of sound.
"Watch," says Halonen.
Then comes a moment of sudden fright: This jumper is in trouble. His arms are all askew, windmilling, and his legs are apart. He seems to be crabbing into the wind like a sailboat on a bad tack. It looks as if he's going to fall out of the sky. But then, in what seems to be slow motion, things begin to happen. He pulls in his arms and holds them tightly to his sides, with his hands cupped, facing forward, to act as airfoils. His legs drift into place, his body arches over his skis, and, at last, all of the angles are precisely right, and he begins to float. He lands 279 feet below on the plastic carpeting of the out-run. The distance is routine for a practice jump—though the recovery was nothing less than spectacular.
Matti Ensio Nykänen—a.k.a. Matti Nukes—is the pride of all Finland. At 20 he's clearly an original. He is the World Cup champion of 1983 and the No. 1 threat for the Winter Olympics on both the 90- and 70-meter hills. Some experts who have been watching Nykänen with growing wonder since he won the world junior title at 17 say he may turn out to be the best jumper ever.
That isn't an assessment made lightly; jumpers and those around them are a most conservative breed and not given to grand predictions. But America's Jeff Hastings, the best of the U.S. jumpers and currently ranked 11th in the world, says flatly, "Matti Nukes was born to jump; the rest of us were made." Says Matti Pulli, Nykänen's private coach, "I'd say he is 95% courage, and that gives him the talent to do what he does." Halonen, who won the silver medal jumping at the Squaw Valley Olympics in 1960, says, "Matti's style is so distinctive they could all jump with bags over their heads and you'd still know it was him." Jim Page, a 1964 Olympian and now the U.S. Nordic director, adds, "Matti Nukes is incredibly aggressive at the takeoff—but not all of his parts always come along in the same sequence."
Matti Nukes. Hastings and others call him that not because of Nykänen's bombs-away style, but because it's convenient shorthand for the way the Finns pronounce his name: NUKE-an-en. Say "Nukes" to Matti himself and his response is the faintest shrug and a cold, who-the-hell-cares stare. Obviously he has only one thing on his mind.
And at this moment, at the takeoff point on this hill in Finland, Matti Nukes is furious. He's a single-minded perfectionist and the untidiness of his last jump and the one before it have irked him. Skis over his shoulder, seething all the way, he has just stamped up the 300 wooden steps on the hillside to the spot where a visitor stands. It's a terrible time for anyone to be introduced to strangers, even though the visitor has the assistance of a kindly interpreter named Ulla, a charming, white-haired woman who looks like the entire world's Mom. Nukes offers a hand that has the feel of an Atlantic salmon one might pick up in Helsinki's famed Market Square. The startling thing from up close is that he has such a baby face; he seems to be no more than 12 or so, beardless, with a pouting mouth and that wonderful, almost translucent complexion Finns have—any rush of blood creates high color in their checks. The rest of him is a jumble of elbows and hipbones and kneecaps; Nukes is 5'7", but weighs only 118 pounds. Having nodded hello, not speaking a word, he turns away abruptly and heads for the stairs to the top of the jump.