MITCH ALBOMSALT LAKE CITY — He couldn’t stop giggling. It kept gushing from his mouth, this high pitched “huh-huh-huh.” As he held his skis aloft
–“huh-huh-huh” — as he hugged his coach — “huh-huh-huh” — as he waved to the crowd of screaming Swiss countrymen, waving flags and clanking cowbells.
Up in the sky, just moments earlier, Simon Ammann had been huge, a giant, riding the wind for 436 glorious feet.
Now, back on earth, he was Harry Potter.
A giggling Harry Potter.
“I am trembling,” said the 20-year-old Ammann, after winning a remarkable second gold medal in ski jumping to become, now and forever, the King of the Hill of these Winter Games.
“There are no words for this. I can’t believe it. I was so nervous, but after takeoff.
“I was flying away.”
Never mind that Ammann looks like he needs a chaperone on the ski lift. He weighs just 120 pounds, stands barely 5-feet-8. And his hairless face, apple cheeks and slightly gap-toothed smile — combined with the horned-rimmed glasses he wears when he’s not jumping — suggest a kid who is trying to keep his voice from cracking.
Or attending Hogwarts School for Wizards.
Not the new ski jumping royalty.
But Wednesday morning, before 20,000 spectators gazing up into the azure Utah sky, Simple Simon lifted off the 120-meter jump — the “big hill,” they call it — with the ease of a child rising from a chair. His green skis splayed into the open air. His arms seemed so light they could flap in the wind. And he flew.
And he flew.
And he flew.
Over the crazy controversy in the figure skating, over the politics, the money, the Coca-Cola sponsorships and everything else that has clouded the Olympics in recent years.
He flew with the wondrous innocence that makes Olympic Games worthwhile, a kid who had never won a World Cup event before, a kid who suffered a terrible crash last month, head and leg injuries, not expected to be here, coming from nowhere, soaring into a whole new world.
And when he touched down, his skis thumping the snow, he put his arms out, spun to see his numbers, then dropped to a knee and popped up swinging. What words could come at a moment like that?
A second gold medal?
Understand how impressive this is. Coming into the Olympics, there were two and only two names bandied about in ski jumping. One was Sven Hannawald, from Germany, the other was Poland’s Adam Malysz. These two had been waging a personal war atop the ski jumping circuit. They were Frazier and Ali. Their countries’ fans hated each other. One German fan even made a sign after a Malysz victory, “Better to be good looking than to be the winner.”
There was to be no battle for gold or silver here. Only bronze.
Instead, on Sunday, Ammann stunned all the experts, flying past both favorites on the 90-meter hill, taking the gold, with Hannawald taking silver and Malysz bronze.
“It was a little surprising,” Ammann admitted.
But Wednesday was supposed to straighten things out. This was the big hill, remember? No more upsets from this pip-squeak. Time for the big dogs to come out snarling.
Instead, once again, Ammann set the bar on his first jump, soaring 132.5 meters. Hannavald matched that distance. Malysz was third, a few feet behind.
Which set up the perfect finish. In ski jumping, the final attempt goes in reverse order, counting down to the first-round leader.
Which put Simon next to last, between the two big guns.
Surely they would squeeze his wings.
But this is why you come to Olympics. When Amman had won on Sunday, his Swiss teammates had mobbed him and thrown him into the air. Their explanation afterwards was, “He’s light.”
That matters in ski jumping. It’s why you don’t see anyone looking like Dom DeLuise trying this. The less you do in the air, the further you can fly.
And so, when the last three jumpers were called, the winner, strange as it sounds, would be the one who did the least, who rode the wind the best, who kept the skis out, the body tilted forward, the arms still.
Malysz came off the jump and soared. He landed at 128 meters, the best jump of the round.
Ammann was next. He slid onto the bar, rocked once, then let go, dropping into his tuck and descending. He lifted off the platform and suddenly he was a bird in a glide. The skis stayed up, 100 meters, the skis stayed up, 110 meters, the skis stayed up, 120 meters, 130 meters.
They touched down, kissing the snow. The crowd erupted. The scoreboard flashed: 133 meters, some 15 feet further than Malysz.
A minute later, Hannawald fell upon landing, and the perfect story was complete. The first-ever Swiss ski jumper to win a gold had just become the first-ever Swiss ski jumper to win two. He danced in the finish area. He shook his head. He cried. He laughed.
Youth makes the Games. Surprises make the Games. Youthful surprises — well, they remind you why you’re here.
“Do you realize how famous you’re going to be in Switzerland?” he was asked.
“To be honest, I am here. I don’t know what’s going on back in Switzerland.”
“What will you do with the inevitable endorsement money?”
He smiled, a junior wizard, happily golden.
“Well,” he allowed, “Switzerland is famous for its banks.”
Simon says: Huh-huh-huh.
Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or email@example.com. Catch “Albom in the Afternoon” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).