Some 28 years after he found surprise fame at the Calgary Olympics, Eddie ‘the Eagle’ Edwards has finally made it to the big screen. A movie of his life, starring Taron Egerton and Hugh Jackman, had its premiere at last month’s Sundance Film Festival and is released worldwide over the next two months. Meanwhile in the UK, a primetime television series, ‘The Jump’, began this week, showing terrified celebrities tackling a ski jump for the first time. Perhaps more surprising than the sudden surge in exposure is that there are a few places in the Alps where complete novices can go to throw themselves off a jump, Edwards-style. At one, the Florian Greimel Skisprungschule in Austria, Tom Robbins tried it.
The hardest thing is the letting go. I am alone at the top of the K30 ski jump in Saalfelden, Austria, perching on a metal bar and staring down at my skis. They are vast – almost two and a half metres long – and are clipped to my flimsy lace-up leather boots only at the toe. The skis sit in parallel tracks made of solid ice that fall away before me for 60 metres, then end, like a pirate’s gangplank, in thin air.
My heart races; time seems to slow. I hear the faint lowing of nearby cattle. I become aware of my instructor, a tiny figure at the bottom of the slope. He is dropping his arm – the sign for action – once, then again, faster. But still my hands grip the metal bar.
It is my second day at ski jump school, and first attempt at the midsized K30 (the figure is the distance in metres from take-off to landing zone). Already I know that while ski jumping proficiency requires minute aerodynamic adjustments and split-second timing, for novices the most important thing is dealing with the fear. “I honestly thought I was going to die,” said Eddie “the Eagle” Edwards of his first forays into a sport that would later win him worldwide fame.
The terror had begun early the previous day, with a ride on Europe’s largest ski jump simulator, a huge metal tower that pokes up above the green fields near Höhnhart like an invader from War of the Worlds. A 200m-long cable stretches from the tower to the valley below and with skis on your feet you whizz down it, dangling in a harness below a mechanism of motorised pulleys. From there, we had relocated to the stadium at Saalfelden, where my coach, Florian Greimel, introduced me to the kit – soft boots like a boxer’s, skis like floorboards, suit like an adult babygro – and we began basic drills on an almost flat section of snow. “It’s all about precision and control,” he said. “It’s actually very much like golf.”
Greimel filmed each attempt and after a while we paused to watch the footage. This was an invaluable learning tool but punctured my balloon somewhat. What had felt like flights of growing length and grace were, in reality, over in a split-second and a couple of yards. In my mind I was starting to assume the poised, forward-leaning position of an accomplished jumper. In truth, I was stiff as a board, like a corpse fired from a catapult. Greimel did his best to reassure me, “and tomorrow if things go well, maybe you can try the K30 . . .”
Over dinner that night at the Gut Brandlhof hotel, we talked more about the techniques of ski jumping, then, perhaps less helpfully, watched some amusing crashes on YouTube. Greimel told me he eventually quit professional jumping because he got sick of dieting. Lighter jumpers fly further, so the sport’s stars were getting thinner and thinner until an anorexia scandal prompted the introduction of new rules on body mass index. I nodded sympathetically, then returned to the dessert buffet.
The morning brings heavy snow, and I am alone as I slowly climb the steps to the K30. Sitting awkwardly on the starting bar, I feel a growing sense of disbelief. Perhaps it just seems absurd that I’m allowed to be here; but there’s a sort of numbness, a sense of watching someone else rather than being in control. Finally, that person lets go of the bar and time suddenly speeds up.
There’s a surge of acceleration and adrenaline, an ecstatic moment in the air, then I’m rushing across the snow and skidding to a stop, relief washing over me, numbness replaced by a joyful tingling of every nerve.
Florian Greimel runs one- and two-day courses in various locations in Austria, from €95 and €240 respectively. See skisprungschule.com
This article was first published on February 7, 2014