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At the U.S. ski team's summer training facility last month, Matt Chojnacki did something no freestyle skier had ever done before: He stepped into his skis, hurtled down a plastic-coated approach ramp at 35 miles an hour, shot up a steep, one-story jump, launched himself some sixty feet into the air and, during the approximately 3.2 seconds he was aloft, turned himself backward heels over head four times, twisting his body longitudinally five times -- then landed, upright on his skis, facing forward, in a swimming pool.
The quintuple twisting quadruple back flip was an extraordinary accomplishment, even among people accustomed to complicated aerial maneuvers. But it was also part of the natural progression in a relatively new sport whose participants pride themselves on having taken midair gymnastics further faster than similar warm-weather sports -- trampoline, diving, gymnastics -- have gone in decades of existence.
At the same time that Chojnacki (pronounced cho-NACK-ee) and his colleagues continue to push themselves to ever more unimaginable heights, however, they are leaving their sport behind. The pity and irony of freestyle skiing is that in any internationally sanctioned competition, including the upcoming 2002 Winter Olympic Games, Chojnacki's incredible jump (done on snow, naturally) would be considered illegal.
Its illegality would not stem from any of the familiar Olympic humiliations -- because Chojnacki ingested a banned substance while training for his record, say, or because he used special equipment designed to give him an advantage over his competitors. Rather, the reason would be that Chojnacki's jump was simply too expert. The sport's governing body, the International Ski Federation -- known as FIS -- does not permit its athletes to attempt anything more complicated than a triple flip in meets. The quad "is too difficult and potentially dangerous," explains Jeff Chumas, manager of freestyle skiing for the Salt Lake Organizing Committee.
This restriction gives freestyle skiing a dubious distinction among athletic competitions: It is the only sport that artificially tethers its own athletes' abilities and accomplishments with bureaucratic hobbles. For comparison's sake, imagine Blaine Wilson being instructed to not attempt a triple somersault dismount from the high bar, even though he was capable of it, or Michael Johnson being forced to slow down his 400-meter run because he was getting too far ahead of his competitors.
Matt Chojnacki has a wide face, a large jaw, blindingly white and straight teeth, a freckled nose and a deep tan. He is five feet ten inches tall -- lean, with wild, tight curly hair. In short, he looks like every other top skier. And like many professional skiers, he is a perpetual student, studying when he can between competitions; he's now in his eighth year of college-level courses, this time at the University of Colorado. Unlike most other young skiers, however, he is studying physics, in the hopes of someday starting a career as an aerospace engineer.
Chojnacki has always had an interest in weightlessness. He first experienced the thrill of challenging gravity at the local swimming pool, Aurora's Dam East, where he would hurl his body off the springboard into flips and other acrobatics. Soon after he started skiing at the age of eleven, he saw his first aerial jumping competition, at Winter Park, and in no time was flying on skis himself. After he broke his hand soaring off a jump at Loveland a few years later, his parents agreed to let him train with a coach.
"They figured, 'He's breaking things without supervision; he may as well be breaking them with supervision,'" Chojnacki recalls.
He broke into the sport at just the right time. In 1988, when Chojnacki was fourteen years old, freestyle skiing was introduced as a demonstration sport at the winter games in Calgary; he began his freestyle training in earnest in 1990. Two years later he nailed his first triple flip in the training pool. A year after that, in 1993, he did it on snow; that same year marked his first quadruple jump.
By the time freestyle skiing debuted as a medal competition, at the Lillehammer Winter Olympics in 1994, Chojnacki's star was quickly rising. In 1997, at the age of 24, he won his first major competition, the World Cup, in Italy. He improved on that the following year by placing second at the World Cup and winning the U.S. Aerials championships. He easily made the 1998 Olympic team, earning the top score at the qualifying meet. But months later, at the Nagano games, he performed poorly, coming in only 21st.
While he has proven uneven in competition, Chojnacki's constant strength has always been his audacity off the ramp. He is a rare natural spatial athlete whose internal compass keeps him oriented no matter his body position. Repeatedly he has tried, and succeeded, at jumps that others were reluctant even to attempt. Along the way, he's been blessed with relatively smooth landings. "I'm one of the few people in the sport I know of who has never coughed blood," he says.
The International Ski Federation's jump restrictions apply only to somersaults; any number of midair twists is permitted. Yet the quadruple flip has been around since 1983, when a young ski instructor from Salt Lake City named Frank Bare hit a ski jump, somersaulted four times and skied away.