Poland’s Dawid Kubacki has long competed in the shadow of compatriot and three-time Olympic ski jumping champion Kamil Stoch but, propelled by a new focus on the power of his mind, the 30-year-old has emerged as the man to watch in the run-up to Beijing 2022.
Dawid Kubacki knows exactly why he is in the form of his life and, for a ski jumper who will go for his first individual Olympic title at Beijing 2022 in a little over 12 months, that is a priceless asset.
“I believe what is going on inside the competitors’ heads is the most important thing,” said the winner of four individual World Cup titles, a first-ever individual world championship gold and the highly prestigious Four Hills tournament in the past 12 months.
It is the clarity of thought and purpose held firmly between Kubacki’s ears that seems to have sent this always-consistent jumper stratospheric.
“I have been working since the new year with a psychologist to improve myself, to do some exercises for the brain,” the Pole revealed. “I don’t know how to explain it, especially not in English, but it’s working on the imagination, what the competition or the next jump will look like, what you have to do or what you want to do on the hill. You are prepared, you know what you will do for the next few minutes, and that is really great for me.
“It sounds pretty simple but it’s also hard work to keep this focus. Anything can break this concentration.”
Brain training has, for the first time in Kubacki’s long career, become part of his daily schedule: “When you think of the brain like a muscle you just keep training it.” He is in the gym, he is on the hill and he is also sat quietly, eyes closed, practising the techniques and exercises he has come to rely upon.
With him languishing in 27th position after the first jump in the final of the men’s normal hill at the 2019 World Ski Championships in Seefeld, Austria, Kubacki’s new-found inner strength was not, to be fair, under much strain. As he admits, the pressure was off the man who had won the team gold on the large hill at the previous World Championships, and as a result, unencumbered by expectation, he was able to fly to 104.5m for 133 points and snatch his first major individual title.
But things were very different at the 2020 Four Hills. Third in the opening event in Oberstdorf and again in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Kubacki had days to mull over the fact he was in prime position to become just the third Pole in history to claim one of ski jumping’s biggest prizes.
“I was a bit nervous sometimes but I had my plan, what I would do on the hill,” he revealed. “I could be a bit nervous before I went on the hill or after in the evening, but when I was going to the top of the hill to make my jump I just did what I could do and everything was focused on this.
“Nerves or spectators or anything else was like two metres away from me.”
It is not quite as simple as being in a bubble – “you have to think correctly” to jump far, Kubacki stressed. Rather, it is about finding a balance.
“You need this level of concentration where you know what to do but your body is doing it itself,” he explained.
The man from Zakopane followed second place in Innsbruck with enormous leaps of 140.5m and 143m in the fourth and final stage in Bischofshofen to triumphantly claim the year’s most sought-after crown. The win automatically makes him one of the favourites for gold in Beijing in 2022, not that he derives too much comfort from such a tag.
Years of feeling the intricacies of ski jumping have taught Kubacki to celebrate form, but not rely on it. Conditions, for a start, cannot be controlled.
“In PyeongChang, every day on the hill was pretty windy. It was a hard competition. On the small hill I wasn’t so lucky,” said the man who came 35th on the normal hill at the 2018 Olympic Winter Games before recovering to finish joint-10th on the large hill.
“Everybody can get lucky and everybody can get unlucky. You have to stay focused on what you are doing and believe that this time maybe you will be a bit lucky.”
For most, luck would not really be part of the equation when standing at the top of a runway. The fear most people feel even thinking about ski jumping is something Kubacki understands, and, even at his stage of career, must confront.
“After all the years on the hill, ‘scared’ is not a good word, but there are situations when you have to be really aware of what you are doing. You don’t have to be scared but you have to respect the hill,” he said. “You believe you will manage it OK, but there is respect because there is still a lot of speed, a lot of height.”
Kubacki has been doing it long enough to know exactly what he is talking about. A regular on the World Cup circuit since 2009, he began as a young kid, jumping in the same club as his now-celebrated teammate Stoch. Kubacki has been there on the sidelines as Stoch has cemented his place as a Polish sporting legend by winning both the normal and large hill titles at Sochi 2014, and following up with a second large hill Olympic gold in PyeongChang four years later.
It is to Kubacki’s credit that he seems completely sincere when he asserts that he is “really glad” Stoch “did it all”, and equally glad he “was there with him” when he did.
But now, perhaps it is Kubacki’s time. The newly Zen-like jumper will certainly not go so far as to make that claim himself, but read between the lines and you can see he is quietly confident.
“For the next Games, I will stay in my way and be focused on the work,” he said. “I believe that after the competition, and focusing on my work, I could go home to my country with a smile on my face.”