Ski jumpers make a career of going up and coming down, but for the past decade Jens Weissflog of Germany, winner of Olympic gold on the large hill Sunday, has had more than his share of ups and downs.
The downs have included a ghastly crash at the 1983 ski-flying championships, three knee operations and the frustration of trying to learn the new V-style jumping technique two years ago, at age 27. Granted, Weissflog's own perfectionism has intensified his struggles. Following the 1988 Olympics, when he was given a seat in the last row of the airliner carrying the Hast German team home from Calgary, Weissflog stewed, certain the seating was punishment for his lousy performance (ninth on the normal hill and 33rd on the large). And just last winter, at the world championships in Falun, Sweden, he jumped so horrendously that he vowed to quit the sport.
His wife, Nicola, helped to talk him out of retirement, for there had been some heady ups along the way too. He won a gold on the normal hill and a silver on the large at the 1984 Sarajevo Games and earned world titles on the normal hill in '85 and '89. Though the 5'7", 118-pound Weissflog is known as the Flea, in a sport that's forever looking for the next teenage sensation, he has had the longevity of an elephant.
At the Lysg‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√Ñ¢rdsbakkene Ski Jumping Arena, the gemstone of Lillehammer's Olympic Park, 50,000 fans, many of them waving Norwegian flags and clattering cowbells, watched as Norway's Espen Bredesen, with some help from the wind, sailed to a lead of more than 10 points after the first round of jumps, leaving Weissflog a disheartened second. He had hit one last depth: "I thought it was almost impossible to catch Espen," Weissflog said later. "I'd given up on the gold medal."
On their second jumps, Weissflog caught a little tailwind and flew 133 meters while Bredesen mistimed his takeoff and thudded at the 122-meter mark. Suddenly, down was up, and up was down. "I don't know whether I should laugh or cry," said Weissflog, who was the only Olympian from the Sarajevo Games to duplicate a gold medal performance in Lillehammer—a remarkable achievement if only because of the revolution that has taken place in jumping technique.
On May 21, their wedding anniversary, Jens and Nicola will throw a huge party to celebrate Jens's retirement from competitive jumping. They have invited 30 World Cup veterans and a number of past Olympic champions for a day of conviviality and jumping—on plastic mats if there's no snow. Then the Flea will hop off the hill for good. On one last up.