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Sunday, February 10, 2002
Swiss Ammann clinches upset gold in final jump

Associated Press

PARK CITY, Utah -- Simon Ammann disappeared briefly under an avalanche of his Swiss teammates, who knocked him on his back and left him looking like a snow angel.

The boyish Ammann didn't mind one bit. He was an Olympic champion.

Ammann won Switzerland's first gold medal in ski jumping Sunday with a clutch, final jump on the 90-meter hill.

"I'm still trembling," Ammann said nearly three hours after winning. "I felt I could be among the top people. But I didn't imagine it would be possible to win."

Ammann missed two events during the World Cup season after a spectacular crash, and he was never mentioned in the days leading up to the event. Germany's Sven Hannawald and Poland's Adam Malysz got just about all the pre-Olympic hype.

Yet Hannawald had to settle for silver and Malysz the bronze after Ammann soared 323 feet (98.5 meters) on the final jump of the competition.

American Alan Alborn of Anchorage, Alaska, who had hoped to end a 78-year medal drought for the U.S. team, finished 11th.

"Close, close, but not close enough," said Alborn, whose best jump was 305 feet (93 meters).

Ammann's golden leap came just seconds after Hannawald's 327-foot jump (99 meters), the longest of the day, had given the German the temporary lead.

Because ski jumping is judged on style points as well as distance, Ammann knew he had little room for error.

"I was as nervous as I've ever been before," he said.

With a crowd of about 20,000 roaring, Ammann nailed his take off, soared high into the air and touched down safely without so much as a wobble.

Still, he wasn't sure.

After sliding to a stop, Ammann took off his skis and anxiously peered through them at the giant scoreboard at Utah Olympic Park, almost afraid to look at the result.

"All it said was Sven Hannawald and nothing else for so long," Ammann said.

Before the numbers were posted, Hannawald, realizing he had probably come in second, gave Ammann a congratulatory pat on the helmet.

The moment Ammann's win became official, Swiss jumpers Sylvain Frieholz and Andreas Kuettel tackled their 20-year-old teammate, pinning him to the ground before hoisting him on their shoulders.

"I was sure he had a medal, but I wasn't sure it was gold," said Frieholz, who had waited nervously at the base of the hill. "He was quite calm. You could feel he was strong."

Switzerland's only other ski jumping medal came in 1972 when Walter Steiner took silver at the 1972 Sapporo Games.

Ammann finished with 269 points. Hannawald, who admitted being nervous after his first jump, had 267.5 points but wasn't disappointed with his spot.

"It's not a problem at all," said Hannawald, who recently emerged as the favorite after becoming the first jumper in history to win all four stages of the prestigious Four Hills tournament. "At the Olympic Games, it's only medals that count. Not their color."

Malysz, who was cheered by countryman including Nobel Peace Prize winner Lech Walesa, had 263 points and became the first Polish jumper to win an Olympic medal since Wojciech Fortuna, who won the gold in 1972.

Winds over 50 mph that whipped snow at the top of the mountain canceled Friday's qualifying, but Sunday's weather could have been lifted straight off a postcard for the Utah outdoors.

Skies were clear and there was little or no wind during most of the jumping.

Ammann hurt his back and injured his head last month in a crash during a training jump at a World Cup event in Willingen, Germany. He sat out a few weeks while recovering.

Fearless like any true ski jumper, he went back to the top of the hill and was soon jumping again.

On Sunday, he followed up his last jump by taking a simple step -- to the top of the award's podium where he soaked it all in.

"I wanted to stay on there," he said.