With four jumpers left, all Andreas Wellinger could do was sit and wait.
First up, Norway’s young stud, Johann Andre Forfang. Scuffed the landing.
Defending Olympic gold medalist Kamil Stoch? Short.
And finally, Poland’s Stefan Hula, the last chance to unseat Wellinger. Nope.
Wellinger, the winner of Thursday’s qualifying round, used a monster 113.5 meter jump — tied for the longest of the day — and a near-perfect landing to put himself out of reach and lock up the gold medal in the men’s individual normal hill competition.
“I can’t believe it, especially the second jump was amazing,” Wellinger told reporters. “To be on top like this, I can’t describe.
“It’s crazy for me. My family and team behind me, all the guys supporting me, I would say thanks to them. It’s not working without them.”
The 22-year-old German (259.3 total points) was flanked by silver-medal winner Forfang (250.9) and beatifully mustachioed Norwegian Robert Johansson (249.7) with the bronze.
“I feel really, really good, it’s fantastic,” Johansson said. “I started jumping (on the) first training days on this hill and it feels amazing to carry a bronze medal back.
“It means the world for sure. This is what I’ve been working for since I was a little kid. It’s a big, big goal been achieved.”
It’s Wellinger’s first Olympic individual medal; he won a gold in the team event in Sochi.
Jumpers were forced to battle blustering wind gusts throughout the finals, with several athletes taking lengthy delays before jumping to let the wind die down before making their run.
“The conditions were challenging but the jury did a good job,” Johannson said. “They were patient and did as good as they could.”
Each qualifying athlete completed two scored jumps, while being judged on both distance and style, with the highest and lowest scores from the five judges being thrown out.
The constant crosswinds proved to be a nagging issue for the jumpers, forcing big deductions for faulty landings throughout the competition as jumpers struggled to keep their skis in the proper ‘V’ shape in the air. But as the competition moved along – and the more dominant jumpers took flight — big scores lit up the leaderboard.
Team USA’s Kevin Bickner, jumping 24th of the 50 participants landed the first monster jump of the competition, a 109.0-meter beauty for a total score of 117.2 through the first round.
But as the top qualifiers took the hill in the first round, Bickner was quickly outclassed, finishing the first round in 14th place. Poland sat atop the standings, as Hula and defending Olympic gold medalist Kamil Stoch in 2nd.
Not far behind in fifth was Wellinger after Round 1.
The medal drought continues for the United States, which hasn’t medaled in ski jumping since 1924, when Anders Haugen won the bronze after a zany 50-year wait.
Bickner represented the Team USA’s best hope but a style deduction based on his landings cost him a shot at a medal. Overall, the 22 year old came in 18th with 217.4 points.
The field was cut from 50 to 30 after the first round, with Americans Michael Glasder (32nd), Casey Larson (39th) and William Rhoads (46th) – all making their Olympic debuts — missing the cut.
Japan’s Noriaki Kasai — appearing in his record eighth Winter Games — may not have made the podium, but man, what a story. The Sochi silver medal winner placed 21st with 213.3 points. Currently 41 years old, Kasai says he has plans to return for the 2022 Beijing Games. What’s left for him to accomplish? He wants a gold medal. Even if he has to compete until he’s 50.
The men return to the hill Friday, Feb 16 at 7:30 a.m. ET for the qualification round of the large hill competition.