Publish date:

Riding the Air

Austria's Andreas Felder (above) and Ernst Vettori are hot in the chillingly spectacular sport of ski jumping

As Andreas Felder slowly climbs the stairs that lead to the top of the 70-meter ski jump in Lahti, Finland, one of the regular stops on the World Cup tour, he pauses occasionally to stare at the slope that angles sharply downward. Every minute or so he watches another apparently crazy young man on skis sail past, sometimes like a bird, sometimes like an anvil. Finally, Felder takes his place at the top of the run-in and prepares to set sail himself, hoping, like the others, to cut loose and fly.

Felder, 25, is half of Austria's spectacular ski jumping duo, the other 50% being 23-year-old Ernst Vettori, Felder's childhood chum from the Tyrolean town of Absam, which lies just to the east of Innsbruck at the base of the mountain chain known as the Nordkette. Together, Felder and Vettori—sometimes called the Ski Twins or even, collectively, "Feldori" on the World Cup tour because of their closeness—are Austria's best bets to pull in a gold medal at Calgary in either the 70-or 90-meter ski jumping event.

As Felder gains speed on the run-in, he sinks lower and lower into the bombs-away tuck of the out there jumper. He wears a glistening flying suit, helmet, goggles, gloves and boots that are fastened to his long, wide skis only at the toes. Other than that he is unprotected and unarmed for his entry into space. The ski jumper has no poles, brakes or parachutes. Once he hops off the metal bar at the start and drops into the iced ruts of the ramp, he is as committed as a falling bomb. Mike Holland. America's leading jumper, says, "Ski jumping is a lot like playing poker, except in poker you can fold."

If it were an option, Felder should fold now. The wind here at this World Cup meet is gusting and swirling wildly. The 90-meter competition has been canceled because of the danger the wind presents. "Some hills are better for me. and some better for Andi," Vettori had said not long before the 70-meter event began. "But if the wind is strong, we all have great problems."

Felder shoots off the end of the ramp, leaning into the turbulent air above the white valley. His skis clatter and his suit hisses as he tries to find the perfect angle to fly into the wind. He doesn't find it. Instead, his head goes down, the wind pounds him like a wave crashing on a bodysurfer, and he flails his arms in a vain attempt to regain balance.

He hits the slope chest-first, his head slamming into the snow, his skis flying. Medics swarm up onto the hill. Felder is placed on a stretcher and taken to a hospital.

A few hours later he has been released and is lying on his bed at the Hotel Lahti. His left ankle is heavily taped, and his face is cut and swollen. He was unconscious when the medics got to him, but he says he feels fine now. "That was my first crash since one at Lake Placid in 1983," he says. "But that one wasn't my fault. It was in the summer, and the wind took me, and I didn't land on the plastic matting that's used when there's no snow." Both of his eyes are blackening, and he holds a bag of ice over his right cheek. This crash was his fault, he says. "I was too far out. There was, like...nothing under me. But it's not a problem. I'll jump again at the next meet." Less than a week later, in fact, Felder will be back in competition.

On the bed on the other side of the nightstand lies Vettori. His head is bouncing in time with the beat of rock music coming from a tape deck. It's a Hitachi with a "3-D Super Woofer." Vettori won it last year in Yugoslavia in a 90-meter event. "He has already won two refrigerators this season," says Felder.

"And a microwave oven," adds Vettori. "And today I won a, what do you call it, a hot thing—an iron. Yes, an iron."

The young men relax—one battered, the other sympathizing—linked by friendship and their efforts to fly. For when their technique comes together and the winds cooperate by blowing steadily in their faces to give them greater lift, they do, indeed, soar like birds.

Although to the novice viewer it may appear that all ski jumpers simply cannonball down to the end of the ramp and land as far down the hill as their momentum will take them, in truth the ones who plane into the wind and use the air as a lifting medium go much farther. Felder sometimes sails more than 270 feet in the 70-meter event. (Typically a ski jumper gets no more than 15 feet off the ground during his flight.) But when Felder crashed, he had traveled less than half that distance, even though his speed had been approximately the same as in a good jump—50 mph.

"A ski jumper is like an airplane," says Paul Ganzenhuber, the Austrian national team ski jumping coach. "The same rules apply. The jumper seeks the perfect angle, and that's just a feeling. It can't be taught or learned."

Ganzenhuber, who has never ski jumped, is captivated by the vicarious thrills he gets from his fly-boys. "They have the feeling after a good flight that time has expanded." he says. "Andi told me once after a good jump that he felt he was in the air for more than half an hour."

Felder and Vettori, both members of the Austrian army, rose out of the Austrian state ski high school called Stams and have won numerous World Cup events between them. They have received a lot of recognition—not to mention home appliances. But they claim that they got into jumping not for fame or profit, but simply because it was easy. "We didn't have a ski lift in our hometown, and you don't have to climb as far for jumping as you do for downhill," says Felder. Adds Vettori of their early days. "We were pretty wild dogs."

Indeed, in 1982 Vettori lost control of his speeding car in the mountains near Innsbruck and plunged off the road. Both he and Felder were thrown from the tumbling vehicle. Vettori escaped with minor injuries, but Felder broke his hip in three places. Four months later Felder was jumping again because, as Ganzenhuber says, "Felder is a tough guy."

Vettori is pretty tough, too, but he also has a shy, childlike streak that makes him seem younger than he is and far more vulnerable than Felder. "Ernst has a wonderful feeling for flying," says Ganzenhuber, "but he needs to control his emotions. Right now Andi is at the top of his form. But Ernst can go farther. In two years Ernst can be the best there is. but he's not the best now. He needs that hardness."

Felder is big for a jumper, six feet. 152 pounds, but Vettori is tiny, just 5'6¼" and 125 pounds. "He's got bird hormones," says Holland. His size is at once an advantage and a source of danger. When Vettori leans into an up-draft just so. he seems to soar like a balsa-wood glider—as he did at Lahti in the same meet during which Felder crashed. There he won a special exhibition 90-meter night jump and left a disbelieving crowd.

On that flight he sailed 40 feet more than the length of a football field plus two end zones and more than 60 feet farther than any of his competitors. His leap was all the more startling because he flew 30 feet past the K Point—the spot where the slope begins to flatten out. beyond which landing is considered dangerous. The wind toyed with Vettori on that jump the way it toys with a dust mote. Not only did Vettori land almost at the bottom of the slope; he also very nearly landed off the side of the course. Such loss of control is at the heart of both the exhilaration and terror of ski jumping, although points given by judges for a jumper's technique—i.e., his control—also count toward his standing in competitions. "When everything is just right, there's nothing like jumping." says Felder. "It's like driving a fast car with a lot of horsepower, and all of a sudden there's a surge when your turbo comes on."

That turbo can scare you to death, too. "On a big hill you are playing with your life." says Ganzenhuber. "Especially in Schifliegen, (German for ski flying, which is a form of jumping that uses a longer run-in and thus generates still longer distances). Last year there was a strong wind during the Schifliegen championships in Klum I Bad Mitterndorf, Austria), and four good jumpers were hurt badly. One crashed so hard, his heart stopped beating. Fortunately a doctor-saved him.

"It came to be Ernst's turn, and he said to me, 'Can I go?' And I said. 'No, not today.' Every athlete is proud, but I looked at him and his face was white, his eyes were staring straight ahead. Later a doctor told me that Ernst's pulse was more than 220. It's a dangerous sport, and one needs courage to take his feelings away."

If Vettori is a bit too high-strung, the unflappable Felder. whose blond-tipped hair goes over big with the girls (both he and Vettori are single) is in danger of outgrowing a sport that's peopled with young athletes. "On the Austrian team. 25 is old." Felder says. Ganzenhuber says, "He loves his sport, but there are times when he is thinking, Is this all?"

If there's a wild-and-crazy attitude in any of the Nordic events, it probably arises most often in ski jumping. The event is short (three jumps and you're done), glamorous (the athletes are framed against the sky) and breathtaking (where else but in the downhill do skiers crash as spectacularly?). And it calls out to those who will take the biggest risks. "No matter how high the hill, you can always find some idiot to go off it." says Canadian national cross-country coach Marty Hall. It's probably worth noting that Matti Nykänen of Finland, the erstwhile bad boy of ski jumping, is expected to be Felder's and Vettori's toughest competition at Calgary.

Of all the skiing disciplines, jumping is also the most difficult in which to pick the winner. No one. not even the jumper, knows what specific conditions he must deal with until he's already speeding down the ramp. "There can be favorites, but really, anybody in the top 30 can win anytime." says Holland. "Look at Felder. He won the 90-meter world championships one day. and a week later, on the 70-meter, he finished something like 50th."

Whichever of the Ski Twins finishes higher in the Olympics, it seems certain that the other will not be jealous. They have been around each other long enough to appreciate friendship more than brutal competition. They're from middle-class families—Felder's father is a mechanical engineer, Vettori's a lieutenant in the Austrian army—and when the two have spare time, they often relax by hopping into a Volkswagen bus and driving off to Italy for some surfing or to a major city where they can check out the latest rock bands. "We need to be with normal people sometimes." says Felder.

The sense of unity that the two bring to the Austrian ski team is welcomed by Ganzenhuber. It is a relationship far different from the one that existed between another pair of Austrian jumpers. Karl Schnabl and Toni Innauer, who won the gold and silver medals, respectively, in the 90-meter event at the 1976 Olympics. They have only recently begun speaking to each other again.

"Our coaches stressed long ago that the main thing should be that somebody from the team wins, not who," says Vettori. "Also Andi and I can give each other tips on how to improve, small things that only a jumper would know."

Ski jumping isn't a sport that many people who live outside certain mountainous regions will ever engage in. As American jumper Zane Palmer puts it. "It's not the kind of thing where you're going to grab the family and say, 'Hey, let's go to Lake Placid for a weekend of ski jumping!' "

But it is a sport that gets our attention, philosophically at least. As Ganzenhuber puts it, "Everyone wants to fly. It's just a feeling that everybody has. And the athlete has a special feeling, a will to do these things that others can't or won't, to find out where his borders lie. That is what Felder and Vettori do."

And that's why we'll watch them do it.