OLYMPICS, WINTER OLYMPICS 2002, OLYMPIC GAMES, SALT LAKE CITY, UTAH, SKIING, ALAN ALBORN, SKI JUMPING

Alan "Airborne" Alborn always has his head in the clouds. That's why the 21-year-old ski jumper is America's best medal hope since 1924. Prepare for takeoff.

Alright, quiz time. Calgary, 1988. Name the ski jumper who won gold. Okay, if you said Matti Nykanen, then you, too, were probably consulting with pages 288 and 295 of David Wallechinsky's "The Complete Book of the Winter Olympics."

Now try this: Calgary, 1988. Name the ski jumper who finished dead last, and who described his first run-in with the sport like this: "When I looked from the top of the jump I was so frightened that my bum shriveled up like a prune." That's Michael "Eddie the Eagle" Edwards, of course, the English plasterer who scored less than half the points of any other jumper.

Review the history of this sport, and the key to fame is clear: invent a new way to fly farther--Swede Jan Boklov spread his skis into the now-standard "V" shape in 1985--or get yourself a nickname. American jumper Alan Alborn subscribes to the second theory, having taken (or been assigned) the nom de g'air of Alan "Airborne" Alborn. But Triple A, who competes on Wednesday in the "large hill" jump, seems more likely to follow in the snow boots of top jumpers like Espen "Espen the Eagle" Bredeson.

The United States hasn't medaled in ski jumping since about the time snow was invented. At the 1924 Games in Chamonix, France, Anders Haugen won a bronze--sort of. He actually finished fourth, but 50 years later a Norwegian sports historian discovered a scoring error; at 83, Haugen got his medal in a special ceremony in Oslo. Alborn might not have to wait until he's that age.

Though he placed 11th at last Sunday's "normal hill" event, perhaps a 90-meter jump is too confining for an Anchorage, Alaska, native used to lots of space. Last March on the "large hill" (120 meters) in Oberstdorf, Germany, Alborn became the first American to break the 200-meter barrier. He'll need another awesome jump to fend off favorites Sven Hannawald of Germany, Polish jumper Adam "Flying Pole" Malysz, Austrian Martin Hoellwarth and the K90's surprise winner Simon Ammann, from Switzerland.

Alborn attacks the slope in a silver mask befitting Darth Vader, but The Force of gravity is the only one that can keep Airborne grounded. He's even figured out a way to beat that. Alborn owns a single-engine Cessna 185, a "Taildragger." He started flying as a kid with his father, a commercial pilot who now delivers cargo to Asia and South America. Now, as a 21-year-old, he's seeing the fruits of that education. "The feeling of leaving the surface and flying on skis is pretty similar to taking off in an airplane," Alborn told Newsweek. "Everything slows down around you; you're in total control. You have to hit the timing, be at the right speed if you want to get the most lift."

You maximize lift by angling your body just so. It shouldn't be too far forward, or "negative." That means you're getting no lift. It shouldn't be too far back, either. Then you're creating too much lift and "stalling out." (You don't want to flirt too much with either of these in a Cessna.) Spending about 60 hours a year watching the wings of the Taildragger has helped him figure out how to achieve that balance on skis and "find the right angle of attack, the one that's most efficient."

In Oberstdorf, Alborn was the model of efficiency; he fared well, too, at the World Cup in Switzerland last December, finishing fourth, and catapulting him onto the world scene. "My goal is to create some interest in the sport," says Alborn. "Of course, a medal for myself would be a goal. But in past years there haven't been any competitive ski jumpers. Picabo Street--I want to be one of those people that brings [a generation of stars] up under me." With the air he gets, there's plenty of room down there.