For a few brief moments it seemed as if it would be a special day for U.S. ski jumping. It was clear and cold at the start of the 70-meter competition, with a gusty wind blowing from behind the jumpers. The ninth man up was 21-year-old Jeff Davis of Steamboat Springs, Colo., an easygoing Westerner, the type of guy you find living in a resort town. He had not been jumping well in practice and, since winning the 1979 National Championships off the 70-meter jump, his training regimen had been interrupted by injuries. Most of the U.S. hopes were pinned on Jim Denney; consequently, Davis felt little pressure.
From the top of the 154-foot tower, Davis could hear the crowd respond to a countryman's jump, and it pumped him up. The U.S. coaches, Penti Ranta and Glenn Kotlarek, had noticed in practice that Davis was coming down the inrun too low, so that it took too long for him to shift his weight forward upon take-off. He thought about that as he stepped into position. Davis told himself, "Go for it," and started down.
Among the previous eight skiers, the farthest jump had been by Alfred Groyer of the powerful Austrian team, who flew 83.5 meters. The maximum safe jump on Lake Placid's 70-meter hill is 86 meters. Beyond that distance the terrain flattens out and, therefore, can be a dangerous area in which to land. Davis launched himself smoothly, the sun behind him, his body stretched out over his skis. He held his form, soaring past the 70-meter mark and past the "critical point," beyond which the hill begins to lose its slope. The crowd let out a "Whoooaa" as Davis finally set down, windmilling his arms to keep from pitching forward. Suddenly he raised his arms in triumphant salute. He had soared 91 meters, tying the hill record. He stopped, shook a fist and skied back into the embrace of a teammate, and his score—128.8—was flashed on the board. Davis was in first place.
Five minutes later the scoreboard was blank. The judges had conferred and decided that, because of the wind, skiers were coming off the tower too fast, and for safety, they moved the start several feet down the inrun. The round would begin anew. Davis' jump had stopped it. The 91 meters wouldn't count.
"That's what's supposed to happen," Davis would say. "It was a good decision. Maybe if it was Kogler [Armin Kogler, the Austrian ace] or somebody, they would have left the start where it was, but since it was an American.... We still have to prove ourselves."
Davis soared 80 and 84 meters on his next two jumps, finishing 17th, the best U.S. placing. Twenty-two-year-old Anton Innauer, the boy wonder of the Austrian team at the Innsbruck Games, where he won the silver, won the gold medal, swamping his rivals with jumps of 88 and 90 meters and a two-jump total of 266.3 points. The silver medal was shared by Japan's Hirokazu Yagi and East Germany's Manfred Deckert.
Denney finished a disappointing 36th overall, with a first jump of 70 meters and a second of 75.0. "It wasn't something I didn't expect," he said afterward. "I haven't skied well all year, and I haven't skied well this week in practice. You always hope it will just come back, but that's not often the way it works. If you don't have the consistency in practice, you can't expect to have it in a meet."
Denney later told Davis that if Davis had jumped only 89 meters instead of 91, the judges probably would have let it stand. That bit of irony would have put Davis in the hunt for a medal—something no American jumper has ever won in the Olympics. Davis, the laid-back Coloradan, smiled and said, "It was all right with me. It just felt great to nail that first one. I proved something to myself. I'll get 'em in the 90-meter."
He also proved something about the future of U.S. ski jumping. As one official told Davis by way of consolation, "That's the first time an American's ever stopped it."
Soaring through the air with the greatest of ease, Austria's Anton Innauer shows his gold-medal form.