The breath-taking, nose-over-ski-tips style of a top international jumper like Gene Kotlarek (above) is the most thrilling spectacle in a Winter Olympics. The event should hold a special excitement for Americans this year, for Kotlarek is the first U.S. jumper ever to offer a serious challenge for an Olympic medal. A 19-year-old sophomore from the University of Minnesota, Kotlarek has spent most of his young life hurling himself off the big jumping hills of the Midwest. And for the past five years, he has dedicated himself to mastering the forward lean of the new-international jumping style.
The best jumpers at Squaw, including the top-ranked Finns, will stick close to this dynamic technique, which was introduced to the sport by Reinhard Straumann, a Swiss engineer and jumper. Before Straumann's style became known, jumpers leaped upward rather than outward. During flight, they leaned forward awkwardly from the waist, and flailed their arms in an attempt to keep their balance. Injuries were frequent. Straumann himself broke a leg, and while he was recuperating he formulated the startling theory that at take-off the skier should be propelled outward and slightly downward, not up.
Straumann went on to change international jumping style. In his climactic experiment, he hung a Swiss jumper up in a wind tunnel and turned on the fan. His instruments proved that by leaning forward from the ankles (see figure 5 above), the streamlined jumper could fly in a longer, flatter arc, which gave him greater distance and eased him gradually onto the landing slope. The graceful curve of the body appealed to jumping officials, who score a jumper half on form, half on distance.
As soon as the technique became known, the Finns made it their own; and since they somehow seemed able to nose just a bit closer to their tips than others, the Norwegian monopoly of gold medals for Olympic jumping was broken for the first time at Cortina in 1956. The Norwegians, who got no better than ninth with their old-style jumps, then hastily converted to the ankle-lean. Today their top man, Torbjorn Yggeseth, leans as well as anyone. But the very best are still the Finns, headed by World Champion Juhani Karkinen and his brother Kalevi. They are light, wiry men with precise reflexes and, apparently, no nerves at all. One of them should win at Squaw Valley. If not, those with best chances are Helmut Recknagel and Max Bolkart, Germans who have been winning steadily this year on the Continent. The Russians have their first jumpers capable of winning gold medals in Nikolai Shamov and Nikolai Kamensky—powerful men who lack polish only in their landing technique. The surprise of the Olympics, however, could well be Gene Kotlarek. Last year at the North American championships Kotlarek came within three feet and 2.8 total points of beating Kalevi Karkinen. This year he has been landing near or beyond record distances on most hills he has jumped, and his form is near perfect. Now, at the Games, he may be ready to win America's first jumping medal.
GENE KOTLAREK: A MODERN MASTER
A successful jump on a big Olympic hill, illustrated here by Gene Kotlarek at Squaw Valley, has more to do with quick reflexes than brute strength. Starting at left, Kotlarek speeds toward the take-off in a deep crouch, arms cocked well back (1). Traveling at nearly 55 miles an hour, he swings his arms overhead (2) and straightens his legs, timing himself so that the maximum leg thrust comes at the instant his skis tilt downward off the lip of the jump. If he kicks a fraction early or late, he can lose 10 or 20 feet. As he sails out over the hill (3), Kotlarek swings his arms down and back, simultaneously raising his ski tips to catch the full lifting effect of the air. Then he starts his spectacular dive toward his tips (4), finally achieving the extreme lean (5) in which his body rides the air like the wing of a plane. He holds this riding position as long as he can; then, as he nears the ground, he shoots his arms out like wing flaps (6) to brake his flight. Absorbing the shock of landing by means of the classical Tele-mark position (7), he completes the jump. To win at the Olympics, Kotlarek must make two such jumps, holding perfect form until the moment after landing when the judges determine he has kept on his feet long enough to complete a standing jump.
THE JUMPER AND THE HILL
Numbered silhouettes below correspond to numbered drawings above, showing positions of jumper relative to slope. Jumping hill at Squaw Valley is rated at 80 meters (262.4 feet), distance from take-off to critical point where landing slope begins to flatten out. Jumper who flies 25 to 30 feet beyond critical point needs perfect form and super-strong legs to withstand impact of landing.