CORTINA d'AMPEZZO, Italy -- Ski jumpers, the forgotten men of the United States ski team, figure it's about time for a much needed change of image.
People compare the jumping team to the sequence on ABC television where a guy tumbles and falls on his way down the jump, complained 22-year-old Zane Palmer of Kremmling, Colo., in his second season on the national team. 'That's not the way things always go.'
But for the U.S. skiers who competed this week in a 70-meter World Cup jump at this luxury Italian resort just south of Austria, a lack of recognition isn't the only thing they've got to worry about at the moment.
The American Olympic ski jumping trials start this weekend at Steamboat Springs, Colo. The two days of competition, combined with showings at a similar event Jan. 21-22 at Lake Placid, N.Y., will determine which seven skiers will jump for the U.S. at the Winter Olympics in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia, next month.'
'We have 11 guys and can only take seven,' Palmer said. 'We want the best possible seven we can get. The Steamboat meet will most definitely be a test.'
One man is already assured of a slot on the squad. He's 24-year-old Jeff Hastings, from Mountain Home, Idaho, America's top jumping hope.
Hastings, in fact didn't even compete at the Cortina meet, though he's in the chase for the World Cup ski jumping title this season. He's already in Colorado training for the Games.
Hastings is one of the few americans who has managed to excel in a sport usually dominated by Scandinavians, East Germans and Canadians, where shooting down a man-made slope at 90 kilometers an hour (56 mph) and flying through the air for almost 100 meters (328 feet) is as common as passing a gate for a slalom skier.
'Jumping is a big thing in Europe,' said Matt Petrie, 25, from Weston, Mass., the new boy on the team. 'A greater proportion of the population skis and even jumps. In the States, only a small percentage of the country has a climate cold enough for people to ski.'
Palmer said the sheer number of jumping hills on the continent continues to amaze the North Americans.
'Over here it's like a national sport, everybody skis and half of them jump. Drive half an hour and you find another ski jump hill,' Palmer said.
Palmer, Petrie and teammate Jeff Volmrich, 19, from Pittsburgh, agreed that jumping has a long way to go to catch up with the publicity generated by the glamour World Cup disciplines like slalom and downhill.
'But everyone at the Olympic trials will be going all out to make the team, despite its lower status ranking with the public,' Palmer said.
Volmrich called jumping a sport almost totally controlled by natural forces.
'The wind plays so much of a role and if it starts to snow in the middle of a round, then things can totally change,' he said.
Unlike slalom racing, where the better competitors are seeded first down the hill to gain the best snow conditions, world class jumpers prefer to run near the back of their 100-men packs.
On a jump run, the snow gets better as more competitors use the course. But the waiting can be the worst part.
'You've got to hit the right psychic level in this sport,' Volmrich said. 'If you're too lacksidasical, that doesn't work, but if you're too psyched up, then you'll blow it.'
The American team -- one of the few in the world that relies on funding from corporate sponsors rather than government grants -- has invested time in psychological training for its skiers, especially the jumpers.
But dee the lure of unexpected medals at the Olympics at Sarajevo and the hoped-for thrill of finishing in the top 15 at a World Cup meet the American jumpers know their sporting careers won't last forever.
Achieving fame as a ski jumper is certainly no sure road to riches from endorsements for products -- a route pioneered by alpine World Cup racers like Sweden's Ingemar Stenmark and America's own Mahre ski racing twins.
'Alpine (skiing) is common, but there's no such thing as a recreational ski jumper,' Palmer said. 'No one's going to say, 'Hey Palmer's first in the World Cup, so I'll buy a pair of his brand of jumping skis.''
For most American jump team members, their days in the sport will end a lot sooner than many would like.
'We're all much younger than most teams, but we tend to get out of it (jumping) a lot earlier,' Volmrich said.
'You can't make much of a living at jumping,' Palmer said. 'It depends on what your future plans are. You can't earn money from ski jumping and you can't do it partime, either.'