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.
For nearly twenty years, Bare had no competition for air supremacy; then, a year ago, a new generation of ski jumpers suddenly attempted, and hit, a flurry of quads. In December 1999, Eric Bergoust, the 1998 Olympic gold medallist in freestyle skiing, nailed the jump at an exhibition at Copper Mountain. Six days later, Chojnacki performed the quad on snow at Steamboat. Four months after that, Nicholas Fontaine, a World Cup freestyle champion, did it in Canada. An unknown number of quads have been performed in practice sessions, too.
So why, in sanctioned competitions, are jumpers still forced into a lesser version of the jump, the triple somersault? Ski officials insist the issue is primarily one of safety -- with the unspoken implication of liability.
"I have been one of the opponents of quad somersaults, not because I'm not awed by what these guys do, but because I want the freestyle community to be thoughtful about how it progresses," explains Salt Lake organizer Chumas. "It raises the question of 'How responsible is the governing body of a sport for its athletes' safety?'"
Yet Chojnacki says he knows of no serious injuries sustained as the result of a quadruple flip, either in water or on snow. Besides, he points out, it's the athlete's neck on the line: Why would someone try a move that could end his career? And so far, the self-policing seems to have worked: Even Chumas admits that the sport of aerial ski jumping has not produced any catastrophic falls in nearly two decades.
In addition, freestyle skiing already boasts a large number of safety rules designed to protect athletes. For example, jumpers must be a certain age before they can try the more complicated aerial feats. They also need to demonstrate that they are capable of performing an aerial maneuver in water before trying it on snow. Even then, the bottom of the freestyle ski jumpers' practice pool is laced with a lattice of pipes that spit air into the water while the ski jumper is airborne; the bubbles break the water's surface tension so that the landing is "softened" when the skier hits the pool. "If we didn't do that, we'd break a new pair of skis every time we jumped," Chojnacki explains.
It's difficult to find another instance of a sporting event's governing body feeling compelled to protect athletes from themselves. If an athlete's safety is the issue, then certainly speed skiing, in which participants reach up to 130 miles per hour, seems like a prime candidate for restrictions; after all, a racer has a greater probability of losing control and sustaining an injury while racing downhill at 130 mph than he does at 100 mph.
But there is no rule against speed. "You can't effectively put the brakes on someone when the goal is to see who gets to the bottom first," notes a spokeswoman for the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association.
Other sports also allow the athletes to set their own bar. The athleticism of figure skaters seems to advance in leaps and bounds between Olympic competitions. It wasn't so long ago that the double twist, or rotation, was unusual; today the quadruple twist is the standard in international men's competitions. (Quads are prohibited in the so-called short program, in which a skater performs a series of compulsory moves. However, in the longer program, when the athlete is expected to place his creativity and athleticism on display, anything goes.)
U.S. Diving, the governing body for the sport perhaps closest to freestyle ski jumping, sets no limits on its athletes, either. "The most somersaults that any person attempts currently is four and a half," says Seth Pederson, spokesman for the organization. "But if someone could throw five and a half somersaults, he/she would not be penalized for that effort."
What makes the International Ski Federation's somersault limit so silly is that the organization attempted such a restriction once before in a similar sport. "In the mid-1980s," recalls Paul Robbins, a field correspondent for the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association, "FIS said that it wouldn't recognize any Nordic ski jump beyond 191 meters. They felt that anything beyond that was unsafe."
Yet the limit soon became meaningless. As the sport progressed, jumpers began flying well beyond it with regularity. Finally, the organization had to admit its error and erase the bureaucratic boundary. Last year a Nordic ski jumper from Austria flew 225 meters -- about a hundred feet past the old line.
On August 26, at the ski-team training facility in Park City, Utah, Chojnacki was feeling good. He'd started the day with a double twisting triple. (The twists actually help the jumper keep eye contact with the ground.) He'd next moved up to a triple triple, and then a quadruple triple. In short, it was only after he'd performed all the maneuvers permitted by the FIS that he approached his coach about trying something a little harder.
The coach wanted to know how Chojnacki felt between the second and third somersaults -- the pivotal point at which the decision to continue revolving must be made. Good, Matt told him, and he climbed to the approach while his coach took a position by the pool, where he could verbally spot his athlete.
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Verbal spotting is encouraged as yet another safety measure for aerial jumpers. The coach may use his ground perspective to keep the athlete in the proper midair position to assure a solid landing. If, for example, Chojnacki's turns were going too slowly, the coach could yell for him to "pull it in" -- tuck into a ball position to speed the rate of the revolutions. If the turns were happening too quickly, on the other hand, and he was in danger of landing on his face, Chojnacki would be told to "lay out" -- to extend his body to slow down his somersaults.
This time, however, little advice was necessary. "You're good, you're good!" the coach yelled, then, "Pull it in a little," and then, "Yeah!"
Chojnacki claims that his jump is the most complicated ever completed in any of the acrobatic sports. But other ski jumpers are close behind him, and records tend to get left behind quickly in such an ambitious environment. So Chojnacki's record leap probably won't last long. In fact, he has a prediction for when it will be broken.
"I have a feeling I'm going to do a quintuple somersault in the next 24 months," he says.