PYEONGCHANG, SOUTH KOREA – Kevin Bickner seems like a polite, mature, smart 21-year-old from the Midwest. Except he’s nuts. Like certifiably crazy.
And he doesn’t dispute that opinion.
“You have to have something loose up here,” he said, pointing to his noggin, “to find that enjoyable.”
That being ski jumping. And he’s right. Ski jumpers must have a screw loose to do what they do: Travel at speeds of 50-plus miles per hour down a steep hill and then launch themselves like a DC-9 at takeoff with no guarantees of a Sully Sullenberger landing.
Want to find the bravest athletes at the Olympics? Easy choice. Stand at the bottom of the ski jump and watch them soar through the sky.
“It’s basically as close as you can get to flying,” U.S. jumper Michael Glasder said.
Without wings. Or a parachute. Earlier this week, I watched 90 minutes of practice jumps near the landing spot and kept thinking to myself, I wouldn’t try that for all the money in Bill Gates’ checking account.
“If you get scared going off of it,” Glasder said, “it’s probably not the right sport for you.”
Precisely. I get nauseous just watching them. These guys zoom down that jump knowing they only have one option. There are no timeouts to consider alternatives.
“There’s no backing out,” said U.S. jumper Casey Larson, who is 19. “Unless you want to end up on ‘Wide World of Sports.’ ”
Larson has two passions: flying off gigantic jumps and collecting socks. Serious.
“I love socks,” he said. “Funky socks. I love crazy, weird sock shops in resort towns. You can never have too many socks.”
Olympic venues feature two different jump structures: normal hill and large hill. They should be renamed scary and very scary.
And those aren’t even the tallest hills in the sport. There is also something called ski flying, which uses a longer hill and is basically ski jumping on Red Bull.
Bickner set an American record in ski flying in Norway last March with a distance of 244.5 meters, or slightly farther than 2½ football fields. He was in the air for 9 seconds.
“You hit a certain point where you start to feel more like you’re gliding than falling,” he said.
Their posture is both beautiful and terrifying as they soar. They lean so far forward that they look almost parallel to the hill, as if they’re prepared to face plant into the snow. The sensation in those few seconds must feel overwhelming.
“When you’re in competition you’re not thinking, ‘Oh man, this is so cool,’ ” Glasder said. “You have so much other important stuff to think about it.”
Like landing in one piece.
Crashes occasionally happen. Bickner flubbed his landing in the same competition that he set the American mark in ski flying, resulting in a frightening crash. He was taken off on a stretcher for precaution.
“I think on YouTube that jump has more views than my record jump,” he said. “I was fine. I was fighting with them to walk off.”
The competitors all started jumping at an early age. Larson began when he was 6 on small hills. He went down an Olympic-sized normal hill for the first time when he was 11. I learned to ride a wheelie on my bike when I was 11.
“The bigger the hills, the more fun you have,” Larson said.
Olympic ski jumping is no longer just for guys. Women jumpers finally won the right to compete at the 2014 Sochi Games after years of fighting the International Olympic Committee for equal opportunity. The women only are allowed to compete on the normal hill, not the large hill. That’s the next obstacle they’re hoping to clear.
American Sarah Hendrickson made history in Sochi by becoming the first woman to ski jump in the Olympics. I told her, respectfully, that she’s crazy, too.
“To be a ski jumper, you never have that fear,” she said. “That’s what I live for. I live for the exhilaration and the rush. I fell in love with it because it’s like nothing else in the world.”
Only the most daring understand it. The rest of us just watch in awe.
Chip Scoggins firstname.lastname@example.org