Aerials had been a demonstration event at the previous two Olympic Games prior to Lillehammer and Sonny Schönbächler had been there both times. He was sixth first time, 15th four years later – solid, if not spectacular, results.
There were few hints at what would happen in Lillehammer, when the sport was included in the full Olympic programme for the first time. Schönbächler was not considered a front-runner. At the age of 27, he had come out of retirement to compete but almost all of the favourites came from Canada or USA.
And, as it happened, the North American giants did take six of the top seven places. Yet it was that seventh skier who earned a great deal of attention, for he would fill the one place that mattered most.
The original field included 24 skiers, but only half advanced through qualifying. Schönbächler was 10th of the 12 qualifiers, with the field led by Belarussian Aleksey Parfenkov. However, while he was destined to finish the final in last place, Schönbächler headed in the other direction.
He later said that his performance included the best two jumps of his whole career. His first, three flips with three twists, scored 113.19pts, a total that was more than 1.7pts better than his nearest rival.Taking that lead into the second round, Schönbächler was facing the sort of competitive pressure he’d never known before. He knew he was one run away from the greatest achievement of his career – and yet instead of buckling, he thrived. He delivered three flips with four twists, landed it perfectly and was awarded a mighty 121.48pts. Philippe LaRoche, who had won the demonstration event two years earlier, pushed him hard, but ended more than six points behind as the unsung Schönbächler took a stunning gold medal.