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Ammann gets ski jump gold with grand finale

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Tuesday, February 12, 2002
Poland's Malysz leads all qualifiers

Associated Press

PARK CITY, Utah -- So much for that no-fly zone over the Salt Lake City Olympics.

In front of a cheering crowd of 19,200 awestruck fans, 66 ski jumpers blasted off the 120-meter hill and defied the laws of gravity -- and nearly security -- on Tuesday during qualifying at Utah Olympic Park.

On another sun-splashed morning in the Wasatch Mountains, the world's top jumpers dazzled a crowd, which included Nobel Prize winner Lech Walesa, with an air show on skis.

And the crowd dazzled the jumpers right back.

"It's amazing," Germany's Sven Hannawald said. "It's exciting to see 20,000 fans in the USA like this. Two years ago, there were 100 when we jumped."

Poland's Adam Malysz, who has already won a bronze medal on the 90-meter hill in these games, soared 405 feet (123.5) meters and finished with 120.8 points as the top qualifier for Wednesday's final.

He was followed by Hannawald, the silver medalist at 90, and Robert Kranjeck of Slovenia, who both had 119.1 points. Roberto Cecon of Italy and Peter Zonta of Slovenia had the longest qualifying jumps -- 410 feet (125 meters).

Switzerland's Simone Ammann, looking for his second gold here after surprising the field to win at 90 meters, jumped 392 feet but appeared to pull back before landing.

American Alan Alborn of Anchorage, Alaska, finished eighth in qualifying, but the 21-year-old called "Airborne" has set his goals much higher for the two-round final.

Alborn, 11th in the 90-meter jump, thinks he can medal.

"Why not?" he asked.

The Americans haven't won an Olympic ski jumping medal since 1924, and Alborn knows what a podium finish would mean in the U.S. for ski jumping's image.

"It would be huge," he said. "I had pretty good results early this season and now I've just got to put two good jumps together."

In a sport dominated by Finland, Germany and Japan, the U.S. gets little respect.

Alborn thinks a medal would show that American jumpers have arrived.

"Once you win a medal, it's proof," he said. "Everybody says, 'He could have won a medal,' but that doesn't cut it until you do it."

The Americans are moving closer.

Alborn finished a career-best fourth in a World Cup event in Engelberg, Switzerland, in December, the highest placing by an American since 1990.

And while it didn't make headlines in the U.S., the Europeans noticed.

"It's getting a lot better," Hannawald said of U.S. ski jumping. "But they need more time. You can't do it in one year. It could take 10. But they're young and they work hard."

Alborn moved to Park City a year ago to train for the Olympics on the site's spectacular jumps, which were carved out of the area's sandstone hills.

Having flown off these hills thousands of times, Alborn and 17-year-old teammate Clint Jones will have a slight advantage in the final. They can sense when headwinds from Kimball Junction are just right for a perfect ride.

And if those conditions happen just when it's one of their turns on the starting bar, they could soar into Olympic history.

Something else will give them a boost -- a home crowd whose deafening roar surged up the mountain and nearly knocked Jones out of his boots on Tuesday.

"It's crazy," Jones said. "We've jumped in front of big crowds in Europe, but we've never jumped when we were the favorites. It makes it kind of hard to focus."