KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia (AP) — When an Olympic official offers to take you backstage at the games, you don't think twice, especially when backstage means climbing to the very top of the ski jump hill.
Holy moly. This is steep.
The women jumpers, cool cats that they are, were perfectly at home here at the top of the ramp, clipping on ski boots, adjusting helmets and shooting the breeze without the slightest regard for the intense, giddy drop-off below our feet.
And me? Well, I gripped the hand rail for dear life. Ugh.
"Follow me," said my guide, ski federation jumping director Walter Hofer, leading the way down narrow metal stairs right next to the icy jumping chute. Really? Must we?
But, wow, what a mind-blowing experience. As we descended — Hofer as surefooted as a mountain goat, me weak-kneed like a cow on ice — jumpers hurtled past us one after another, within arm's reach.
From a sitting start, the women accelerate from 0 to 90 kilometers (55 miles) per hour in about 5 seconds, Hofer explained. At that speed, they have no more than 150 milliseconds at the bottom of the ramp to time their jump to perfection. They must be able to sense when the moment is right: "You have to feel it."
We waited at the foot of the chute for another jumper to take the plunge, craning our necks upward. She hurled herself into the void, her skis rumbling to a roar on the track as she picked up speed.
Then — whoosh! — she took off right in front of us. We marveled in the ethereal silence as she flew, flew, flew — close to 100 meters — and then landed. Often, the skis make a gunshot-like crack! when they slap hard against the snow.
The point Hofer wanted to make in showing me all this up close was that ski jumping is a beautiful sport. Listen to this recording of the jumper taking off, and I'm sure you will agree.
— By John Leicester — Twitter http://twitter.com/johnleicester
Associated Press reporters are filing dispatches about happenings in and around Sochi during the 2014 Winter Games. Follow AP journalists covering the Olympics on Twitter: http://apne.ws/1c3WMiu