Editor’s note- In the early 80’s the Canadians, under head coach Bill Bakke, had some incredible results. One could argue (as I would) that their success helped buoy US performances of the era, as well. One of the key ingredients (along with Horst Bulau) was a kid of great natural talent and deep love of flying… a kid from Thunder Bay. Ontario named Steve Collins.
|Canadian Steve Collins celebrates his ski flying victory in Harrachov, TCH on the shoulders of his coach, Bill Bakke.|
STORY No. 79
Age- aiming for 100… so far so good
Living in the Great White North
Blackhawk Ski Club, USST
Ticket to Rank and Privilege
In March of 1980, the Harrachov, CZE ski flying hill was opened for its first competition. In my second year of coaching the Canadian team, I’d made the selection of Steve Collins (just turned 16) and Horst Bulau (age 17) to enter. Two other skiers were with us in Europe, but it was my decision they not compete there. Steve and Horst had earned WC points in several meets that year, the first of official WC standings. In a strong headwind at Lahti, they’d placed 1st and 5th, with Steve breaking the old hill record by 8 meters, convincing me of their preparedness.
Harrachov was reported to be the ‘biggest ever’ ski flying hill, although at that time they were all limited to a K point of 165m, the speed, parabolic knoll and R2 were indeed mammoth. But the weather was very mild, bringing in dense fog and rain.
At that time two coaches were on the jury, and my fellow coaches railroaded me into that obligation. One could think it an honor, but indeed it was more ‘if he is foolish enough to bring those young skiers here for their first ski flying, let’s stick him with some responsibility!’
The official car came to pick me up that first day, a Mercedes no less in a relatively poor communist country. As the doorman opened the rear door for me, I see the FIS TD already there, Helmut Recknagel (DDR) who’d won in Squaw Valley and Zakopane in 1960 and 1962 respectively. I immediately told him what an honor it was to meet him, and how as kids we went out the day after the Squaw Valley Olympics (first time we’d seen ski jumping on tv), and tried to emulate his trademark arms forward flight position. As we exchanged business cards, he wrote his home address on the back of his: Karl Marx Strasse, East Berlin. After ski jumping, he went on to earn a veterinarian degree, obviously living a life of rank and privilege.
Steve’s first jump on the hill, his first ever ski flying, was 172m. The world record at the time was 176m (Innauer, Oberstdorf). Had Steve not slightly opened his body position in flight, I am convinced he’d have flown that distance. After his first jump:
me: fantastic, Steve
he: man, that was wild
me: tell me about it
he: I couldn’t see a thing
me: me either!
Yes, it was that foggy. A series of flagmen up the inrun beckoned the skiers. From the coaching platform we saw the skiers approach the takeoff and then disappear into the fog in flight. Film study later verified skiers were 15-18m high in flight, that is 50 to 60 feet. Yikes.
I was summoned to the judges tower, to see a linen clad table with chocolates, fruit and crystal glasses full of champagne. Milo Belonoznik, designer of the hill and chief of competition, toasted me and said “the hill works, the hill works!” Steve had confirmed that for him. So Milo’s ticket to rank and privilege for ensuing years was punched by Steve Collins!
At the post competition press conference, Steve agreed to go if I’d also go and answer the questions for him. Predictably, the first question was about Steve’s V style ski position in flight. This was March and we’d gotten that question for three months by now. So I was prepared, saying “here we have judging the esteemed Olympic medalist, Harry Glass (DDR, Cortina 1956), so we should ask him. From my perspective, Steve’s flight is as safe as anyone’s and apparently it is effective too, judging by his distance.” Mr. Glass was a bit taken aback that I knew of him, and that I’d deferred to him. And he concurred!
As we left the media center, Steve stuffed his pockets with Coca Cola bottles and chocolate bars to take for his teammates. Those were luxuries in that society, but available to Steve in spades. And keeping him amped on sugar for three days was one thing we had going for us, too.
Steve won the second day too, again in miserable ski conditions. Needless to say he was ‘in the zone.’ Horst was shorter with his jumps, a victim of his growth spurt and habitual late takeoff movement. But he was consistently in the 150’s m and very stable. An old coaching axiom is you never take only one skier to a competition, so Horst was indeed a team player.
Day three was again foggy and rainy, with the rain occasionally changing to those big gooey snowflakes skiers hate. Steve again cracked the longest jump in round one, and I’ll never forget Baldur Preiml, the Austrian coach coming to me. “Congratulations, Bill, the meet is over. We just thought by day 3 someone would beat Steve, but we see that is not possible.”
I radioed to Steve:
me: congratulations, Steve, you won, the meet is over
me: you won, Steve, the meet is over
he: you mean we can’t jump anymore?
What can you say about such youthful enthusiasm?
So that weekend our team lived the life of power, rank and privilege that both the FIS and a communist country can bestow. On one level that was neat. But it is too phony and pretentious, and growing up with American values of an egalitarian society and a meritocracy, it was uncomfortable.