PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — As Will Rhoads sat on the start bar of the Alpensia Ski Jump hill, blasted by a frigid wind, he attempted to distill a moment he’d anticipated all his life down to mechanics.
Like every Olympic athlete, the Park City native grapples with an unusually weighty mix of personal desire and public expectation made more acute by the reality that the moment only comes around once every four years.
Rhoads sped down the run and launched himself into the air, flying 87 meters. At the bottom, he took off his skis, looked at the camera focused on him and shook his head.
“For the last three or four years, we’ve had this week targeted,” said the 22-year-old first-time Olympian after scoring 75.5 points and finishing 46th of 50 jumpers in Saturday night’s final. “And I just made a bummer of a technical mistake. But I can definitely correct it. … So disappointing, for sure, but I know I’m much better on the large hill, so I’m looking forward to that event for sure.
Rhoads said competitors try to view the Games as just another high-level competition.
“It feels pretty similar to the World Cup level,” he said. “I mean, there’s more (pressure). Things like the opening ceremonies, being a part of Team USA are really fun, but they add a bit more of an edge to it. I can definitely handle the nerves a little better moving forward.”
Rhoads didn’t make the top 30, and, in fact, only one American ski jumper did. Kevin Bickner’s Olympic debut was the opposite of Rhoads, as he pumped his fists and celebrated even before he’d stopped in the finish area.
“It’s incredible, definitely blows away my expectations,” Bickner said. “I’m really stoked about my performance, and I’m excited to get in the second round and see if I can do that again.”
Bickner’s 109-meter jump was the longest of the first round, and it gave him 117.2 points, as well as a spot in the 30-man final. In the second round, he jumped 98.5 meters, earning 100.2 points (217.4 combined score), which was good enough for 18th place.
Germany’s Andreas Wellinger earned gold with a total of 259.3, while Norway jumpers Johann Andre Forfang (250.9) and Robert Johansson (249.7) earned silver and bronze, respectively.
Bickner was the only U.S. jumper to make the 30-person final, but both Michael Glasder and Casey Larson felt good about their first jumps in Olympic competition. Glasder managed a 98.5-meter jump and missed the cutoff for the finals by just two spots and less than a point.
Larson jumped 97 meters and finished 39th.
Rhoads was thrilled for his teammates and said their success inspires him as they have plenty of jumping left with the large hill competition, as well as the team event.
“It was awesome,” Rhoads said of Bickner’s first jump. “Great jump for Kevin, and he’s been jumping well this whole week. I’m really excited for him. … All three of my teammates seemed to have better jumps. I made a little mistake, and when the speed is low, if you make a mistake, you’re not going to be able to catch the right wind and then it’s over. I gotta let it go and move forward.”