Only a few nations have dominated the sport of ski jumping for as long as anyone can remember. Since the very beginning of the sport’s history, Austria has been among the best countries. From the 1979/1980 season onwards, the Austrians failed to jump onto the podium of the Nations Cup only six times. So what’s their recipe for success and longevity in ski jumping? When the Austrian senior ski jumpers hadn’t been playing the first fiddle in the international competitions in the last few years, it was the dominance of the Austrian juniors that could easily be spotted with the naked eye. The young jumpers’ top results in the World Cup were just a matter of time, and when the 2021/2022 season came to a close, Austria won the Nations Cup for the first time in eight years.
Austrian dominance in ski jumping
Alexander Pointner’s jumpers won the Nations Cup eight times in a row. During his run as the lead coach, Austria became an undisputed force in the team events. They won the team World Championships seven times (2005, 2007, 2009, 2011 and 2013), became Olympic champions twice (2006 and 2010) and on top of that, they got three gold medals in the Ski Flying World Championships (2008, 2010 and 2012). Austria also holds another record. Austrian jumpers have amassed a whopping number of 256 individual World Cup victories, whereas the second result belongs to Finland with only 151 victories, leaving Norway in third place with their 129 wins. Even though the Austrians haven’t dominated the last few ski jumping seasons, they still oscillated somewhere in the lead, either on the podium or just a few spots behind it.
When it comes to lower-ranked competitions like the Continental and FIS Cups, no one compares to the Austrian jumpers, in fact: no one even comes close. Their performance during the Junior World Championships in Zakopane was also spectacular. In the individual competition, the Austrians (Daniel Tschofenig, David Haagen and Markus Müller) took home all the medals. These three, accompanied by Jonas Schuster were second to none and they easily won the gold medals in the team competition as well. Together with Vanessa Moharitsch and Julia Mühlbacher, Daniel Tschofenig and David Haagen also managed to become the junior world champions in the mixed team event.
In the Continental Cup’s unofficial Nations Cup standing, Austria was ahead of Norway by almost 1,700 points. What’s more, twenty-one Austrian jumpers managed to score points in COC events. While this feat was accomplished by only eleven Polish ski jumpers, twenty-one Austrian jumpers finished in the top 30 of Continental Cup competitions at least once during the last season. The Austrian dominance was even more visible in the FIS Cup. Their team scored 8,473 points in the unofficial team standings, which is… more than all of the other nations combined. Thirty-one Austrians and thirteen Poles managed to get points in FIS Cup events.
What does Austria have that Poland doesn’t?
Surely the first thing that comes to mind is the proper infrastructure. Training conditions, the coaching staff and numerous places where the jumpers can train and practice jumping are also crucial. “In Austria, we have the right plans, which start at the very youngest age. We also have schools, such as the Stams Ski Academy, where we have the best possible conditions, which in turn makes it possible for us to improve and develop our skills. The coaches we have had recently are at a high level as well. This is definitely one of the key factors,” says David Haagen, two-time silver medalist of the Junior World Championships in Zakopane. Another Austrian junior jumper has a similar point of view to Haagen’s: “I think that there are a lot of clubs for the beginners in Austria. When I started, I received a lot of support that enabled me to jump”, Markus Müller emphasizses.
Although it may seem like the Austrian infrastructure is sufficient, it turns out that the chances of making progress in ski jumping depend on where you live, and they differ throughout the entire country. “The training opportunities and possibilities depend on where you live in Austria. I would say that in western and central Austria, there are a lot of places where you can start your journey with the sport. Every year, there are training courses for people who want to start ski jumping, so you can just go there and give it a try. However, in the eastern part of Austria, it is much harder, because there aren’t many training facilities, so you have to travel quite a bit. That’s the main reason why there are more ski jumpers from western Austria rather than the eastern part of the country”, says Jonas Schuster, who won a gold medal with the Austrian team during the Junior World Championships in Zakopane.
The surname Schuster is mainly associated with the superb coach, who led the German team for several years. As it turns out, that is not a coincidence, because Jonas is in fact Werner’s son. However, the young Austrian started his ski jumping career a little differently than his peers. “For me, it was a little bit different, because I started jumping with my grandpa, who lives two hours away from my place. In the beginning, I didn’t train at all. I would just go to his place a few times during winter and I would just take part in competitions. Three years later, I decided to move to the place where I live right now, and I started to train and pay more attention to the sport. My dad didn’t want me to take ski jumping too seriously at a very young age. He wanted me to have some fun at first, and then after some time, he said that it’s not a problem if I take it more seriously now,” adds Schuster, who not only managed to get a medal with the Austrian team in Zakopane, but also won an individual gold during the European Youth Olympic Festival in Vuokatti.
Such a solid team definitely tends to become a driving force and provoke stronger rivalry within the team. However, quotas available for certain competitions often lead to the fact that the Austrians with weaker form than their fellow teammates don’t get the chance to jump in official competitions, even though they would have easily scored points in the Continental Cup, FIS Cup or sometimes even in the World Cup. Unfortunately for some of the guys, there are jumpers who are in even better shape than they are, and those athletes turn out to be the ones who get selected to participate in the competitions. “Of course it’s not as easy to stay in the World Cup squad all the time as it may be in other countries, because we have a lot of jumpers who are on a very high level. For me personally, this is something that motivates me, because I always want to try to be better than the others. Only when you do good in training, can you be certain that you will also perform well compared to the jumpers from other nations in the competitions,” says Haagen. Markus Müller completely agrees with his teammate: “The fact that there are so many good jumpers in Austria has its pros and cons. But I think it’s nice because we can motivate each other and push our own limits. Of course, no one wants to stay at home during the competition weekend, but in my mind, that’s what makes us stronger,” he adds.
As it turns out, the support from the clubs is the most crucial factor when the athletes start ski jumping. Later on, they are a part of the national teams or have to train on their own. “From my point of view, there is no connection between me and the club after I was 14 years old. Back then, I used to train in Stams, and since I moved last year, I’ve started training at the Salzburg/Rif training facility, where a lot of our jumpers train as well. When I’m home, I usually train on my own, and when I want to jump, I go to the hill with my brother, who also happens to be a coach in my club. We always stay in touch with my main coach, though,” says Haagen.
Adam Małysz has stressed time and time again that the athletes have to gradually move on from different ranks of the competitions in order to constantly improve and not burn out too quickly. “It’s the same in Austria as it is in Poland. First, it is necessary to compete in the lower 'leagues’, and only when you are successful, you can get yourself a spot in the World Cup squad. I also agree with this. I think the only way is to get good results in the FIS Cup and the Continental Cup first, and only if you are good enough, you can shoot your shot in the World Cup,” says Jonas Schuster.
In Austria, there are four main squads – the national team and groups A, B and C. This season, 32 jumpers got selected for the national teams. In the first group, we can find the best athletes from last winter, who also won gold medals in the team event during the Olympic Games in Beijing – Manuel Fettner, Jan Hörl, Daniel Huber and Stefan Kraft. The experienced Michael Hayböck got himself a place in the A-team. He is accompanied by other athletes, including the 20-year-old Daniel Tschofenig, who went to the Olympics and won three gold medals during the Junior World Championships in Zakopane. However, the division into these groups doesn’t really matter when it comes to getting selected for the team that will be jumping in competitions later on. “The teams are based on the results from last season, so if you performed well, you will find yourself a spot in one of these groups,” explains Haagen.
Is it possible to focus only on ski jumping in Austria?
In Poland, there is a discussion about unfavourable conditions for the development of the young athletes, who also need to work to make a living for themselves next to their training, while the junior jumpers have to depend on their parents to help them. What is the situation like in Austria? “Thanks to the sporting program in our army, I can focus on ski jumping only, and I don’t have to work besides that. When it comes to the equipment, our ski federation pays for almost everything we need. We only have to cover some of the expenses, but overall, I don’t think it’s that bad,” emphasizes Haagen.
Those who are a little bit younger and study in Austria do not have it easy when it comes to the number of responsibilities they have. Luckily, most of them are doing quite well. “Combining sports and school isn’t easy, but luckily, we have three special wintersports schools. This is the best solution for integrating learning and ski jumping. Of course, it’s not always easy, but if you are a well-organized individual and you can learn on your own without any help, it’s not that big of a problem,” says Jonas Schuster.
Jumpers also get some time off for proper recovery and regeneration after the season. However, the younger ones have to go back to school. “After the season, we always have a short break. After a three-week rest, we start the preparation for the new season in the gym. We take a two-month break from jumping on the hill. During this time, we have to focus more on school. Usually, we have plenty of exams between April and July, so we have to study quite a lot,” Schuster adds.
What do the junior jumpers hope for in the future after already having achieved so much success? “I’ve managed to accomplish some of the goals that I had set for myself before the season [two golds and one silver medal during the Junior World Championships and a second place in one of the Continental Cup competitions – editor’s note]. Of course, I want to continue in the right direction. Everything can change quite fast in ski jumping, so that’s why I’m quite optimistic when it comes to the next season, but we will see what it brings,” David Haagen finishes his statement.
How about Poland then?
After the last season, Polish ski jumping underwent a major revolution thanks to the… Austrian, Thomas Thurnbichler. The relatively young coach believes in a solution that has been a key factor to success in his homeland. Not only do we have the A, B and junior teams, but we also have two groups, which are based in Szczyrk and Zakopane. These facilities are meant to support and help the younger jumpers, who have been slightly neglected in the last couple of years. Will this plan work out? To answer this question, we will have to wait for the first results for at least the next couple of months.
translated by Weronika Brodowska