PYEONGCHANG, South Korea >> There are hundreds of athletes at the Winter Olympics who can soar and flip and twist in the air in a manner that appears to defy gravity. No one, however, can fly the way Stefan Kraft can.
Kraft, a 24-year-old Austrian, may not win a medal here this week. He finished 13th in the normal hill competition last weekend. In the large hill qualifications today, he finished in 11th place. The final is Saturday.
Generally, the larger the hill, the better Kraft is. He holds the world record in ski flying, an offshoot of ski jumping, where the hills are larger than those used in the Olympics and where the landing zone is set more than 200 meters away from the takeoff point. He set the world record at a sky flying hill in Norway last year, soaring 253.5 meters (832 feet) and then sticking the landing.
At 5-foot-5 and 123 pounds, Kraft has a slight build and strong legs that are tailor-made for flight. He isn’t great at pushing off the jump, which is more important on the smaller normal hills, but once in the air, his technique is immaculate, and he appears to float on the wind.
“I am a flier,” he said in an interview this week.
So what does it feel like to fly more than 2 1/2 football fields down a mountain?
“It’s really great,” Kraft said.
Before his world-record flight, he said, the anticipation built as he sat on the bar, waiting for the starter to give him the green light. When he felt the wind blowing up the hill, optimal conditions for keeping a jumper and his extra wide skis aloft, he could sense the moment was right for a big jump.
“Then you have to push and push during the whole flight,” he said. “You try to feel the air pressure under your body, and then after 200 meters you just begin to think you have to land this.”
The tower of the Alpensia Ski Jumping Center rises far above everything else in Pyeongchang and dominates the nighttime vista, when it’s aglow in white and red and green. Kraft won the large hill competition here last year. He is the reigning world champion, and he remains hopeful that great things can happen for him here.
“I like this hill,” he said, eager for his next flight.