U.S. ski jumpers are not expected to challenge teams from Germany, Austria, Finland and Japan for the medals at the Salt Lake City Olympics. But several young U.S. athletes will have the opportunity to compete on their home soil and in front of a worldwide audience as they soar against the elite ski jumpers.
As a young boy growing up in snowy Alaska, Alan Alborn started to ski not too long after he learned to walk. Alborn began to take flight off small mounds of snow, and as he grew, he became comfortable with higher and higher jumps. Despite his interest in ski jumping, Alborn's parents had other desires.
"My parents wanted me to be an Alpine skier," he explains. "But I tried that a few times doing the racing and the slalom stuff. But it could not come close to the sensation of jumping for me. So I got steered in that direction which did not make them [his parents] too happy."
His parents finally consented, and Alan Alborn went on to gain valuable Olympic experience at the age of 17, when he competed on the U.S. ski jumping team at the 1998 Nagano Olympics in Japan. Alborn later won the 120-meter event in 1999 at the U.S. Ski Jumping Championships. While Alborn had some success in the United States, he looked to the elite jumpers of the world for inspiration.
"When I was jumping with the older team from 1998, we were all at a point where nobody really had any great results," says Alborn. "So it was just a group of guys just struggling to be noticed in the world. So there really was not anybody on the team at that time to look up to in terms of performance. We would always look up towards the World Cup jumpers, the top guys in the world, and study their technique. My main focus has just been watching what seems to be working best at the time."
Ski jumping is attracting growing audiences around the world. Alborn says he is becoming better known in European countries that have long dominated the sport.
"This end of last season and this summer, people look at me and consider me one of the top guys [ski jumpers] in the world," he says. "Even though we are in Germany or France or Austria, all the fans are pretty excited there is a new person in the ranks other than the typical Germans, Austrians and Finnish guys."
Despite his growing recognition by fans, Alborn says the pressure to perform well comes from within.
"There is not pressure on myself from other people, but just the pressure of competing and doing well on both competitive jumps to see if I can boost my confidence and move up in the rankings in the world," says Alborn. "But in terms of fan pressure, I think every athlete has some of that at a certain level. But when it comes down to actually jumping, it is more of just competing against yourself."
And Alan Alborn has been competing against himself, at least in training. Alborn has been immersed in a weight training program over the past year that has made him 50 percent stronger than last year without gaining any weight. He says his training has made jumping an almost automatic routine, allowing him to focus and compensate for natural variables like weather.
"The level of performance in my training has been such that it has made it possible to where I can pretty much train like I would compete at the same intensity level and same performance level," he says. "So then when I go to the real competition, the only thing that can change the attitude or the actual jump itself would be the weather. So I just take to the hill what I have [learned] from the training sessions."
While Alborn says ski jumping appears to be a fairly simple sport, the athletes spend a lot of time analyzing each part of their jump in an effort to maximize the distance they cover in the air.
"Ski jumping is really simple if you look at it on a video," he says. "You see somebody come flying off the ramp, fly down the hill and land. But as an athlete, you get that whole thing picked apart so much that you lose track of what the whole ski jump should look like. If you have the physical side and you know what the ski jump is supposed to look like, you just have to let your legs take over on the take off and just fly. I have gotten much stronger and much quicker [since] this [past] summer."
Alan Alborn is now 21-years-old, and his strength is showing. Alborn became the first American to jump over 200 meters, setting a new U.S. record at 210 meters in a training jump. He also claimed his second U.S. national ski jumping championship off the K-120 hill, winning by a hefty margin - nearly 30 points over his nearest challenger.
Alborn is having the best season of his career, moving into the top 15 after being 55th in the world last year. The young American is hoping his rise in status will help him to soar to a podium finish in Salt Lake City.