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A Flight To The Finnish
Bob Ottum
December 05, 1983
Finland's Matti Nykänen, the best ski jumper in the world, also has a temper that can soar to the heights
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December 05, 1983

A Flight To The Finnish

Finland's Matti Nykänen, the best ski jumper in the world, also has a temper that can soar to the heights

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But now something puzzling happens. Suddenly there's a sense of tension in the crisp air. From one side, Halonen murmurs a few words of coaching: "Matti," he says softly, "I think perhaps you're not down far enough at the takeoff. Your crouch...." It doesn't sound like any sort of coaching that one is familiar with: Halonen is being deferential. And Matti Nukes turns on him, glaring from beneath the rim of his cap.

"Oh, really?" he says. "You think so?" His voice is brittle. "Are you quite sure? Who's doing the f—— jumping here?"

The interpreter leans over and whispers, "Matti just said a very, very bad word in Finnish."

She is told that it's a very, very bad word in English, too.

As Nykänen stalks away, his anger evident in the rigidity of his back, Halonen sighs like a wearily patient father and says, "Lest you think this behavior is strange, there's a very special reason for it. You shall find out exactly what it is when you talk to Matti himself later."

Nykänen's next takeoff is perfect: He soars effortlessly toward the faraway blue lakes, settling down at 243 feet as easily as a falling leaf. Everyone on the hilltop sighs in relieved appreciation. And while waiting to talk to Matti Nukes, one has plenty of time to reflect on the unique forces that have made him this way: a driven, angry young man who happens to be the best ski jumper in the world.

Nykänen comes from Jyväskylä, a town some 170 miles north of Helsinki, where on winter days it must seem that the sky is full of falling Finns. Several ski jumps of various sizes dot the community, but the pride of the region is the 90-meter hill, a structure that Jyväskylä kids play on as if it were a giant jungle gym. Winters in mid-Finland are bitter and long, and the Jyväskylä junior jumping program is highly organized. "Every other man in town seems to be a coach," says Pulli, who has taught Nykänen for the past eight years. "At first, I was just looking at Matti in wonder, he was so good. He was always ahead of his age group."

Matti was given a pair of tiny jumping skis at nine and he was competing by the time he was 11, perhaps the lightest and smallest of his group. "But even then," says Pulli, "I could tell that he would be the best." Which also means, in a way, the most reckless: Nykänen's hell-bent style showed up even at swimming class, where he was given to diving off the five-meter board in ski-jumper style—headfirst, with his arms firmly at his sides. But perhaps the most telling episode of his earliest jumping escapades was this: Nykänen's parents knew their son all too well and had been fearful of what he might attempt Sure enough, one evening when he was 14 he left a note on the kitchen table. "Please, Dad, don't be angry," it said, "but today I did 88 meters [289 feet] off the big jump [the 90-meter hill]."

Still, that was just play; the great gains came a couple of years later when Nykänen got a job with the city parks department—he was assigned to help groom the big hill. The job was important because the Nykänens aren't a wealthy family. Matti's dad, Ensio, is a cab driver. His mom, Vieno, works as a clerk at a gift shop. Matti has three sisters, one of them married. "Matti didn't just work on the jump—he lived on it," says Pulli. "He spent every bit of daylight there and on into the evenings. This sounds incredible, but I swear he made some 60 jumps a day. That's more than 2,500 jumps a season. And that's if that's what sets him apart from all the others now."

But there's a slightly sad side effect: Nykänen was so obsessed that he constantly skipped school to go jumping; at one point he flunked a grade and had to repeat it. After nine years of angrily mixing school and truancy, that was it for Matti Nukes. For what it's worth—which is obviously not much in terms of his international standing—Nykänen now has difficulty reading.

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