All hail the new king of the hills
Austrian ski jumper Stefan Kraft has been in unstoppable form in recent times. The world No1 and the reigning double world champion and World Cup champion, he won the test event for PyeongChang 2018 and has his eyes firmly set on Olympic gold.
“One of the most important factors for me as an athlete is my family, who come and watch me at a lot of competitions and who support me in everything I do,” said Stefan Kraft of Austria, who has been sweeping all before him on the ski jumping scene.
“I love that indescribable feeling you get when you’re in the air and you jump long, and when I hear the Austrian national anthem as reward for my performances. I also enjoy having fun with my friends and travelling around the world.”
Born in Schwarzach im Pongau in the state of Salzburg on 13 May 1993, Kraft took up ski jumping at the age of 10, after watching a competition in which his best friend was taking part. It was not long after that he joined the prestigious Salzburger Landes-Skiverband club, a well-known finishing school for local winter sports talent.
Four Hills victory
Kraft had not even turned 15 when he won his third international competition in Bois d’Amont (FRA) in March 2008. Three years later in Otepäâ (EST) he landed world junior team gold and individual silver before then making his World Cup debut in January 2012.
His first individual podium on the tour came a year later in Bischofshofen (AUT), while his first victory arrived on the big hill in Oberstdorf (GER) on 29 December 2014. That season saw Kraft write his name in the history of the legendary Four Hills Tournament, which he won from team-mate Michael Hayböck. The young Austrian then went on to claim normal hill bronze and team silver at the FIS Nordic World Ski Championships in Falun (SWE).
2017: The Year of Kraft
Kraft atoned for a slightly disappointing 2015/16 campaign by having the year of his life in 2017. He was barely off the podium between January and March, scoring a series of wins around the world and establishing himself at the pinnacle of his sport.
He scored his first victory of a winter to remember at Oberstdorf, in the opening round of the Four Hills Tournament. Two further wins came in the Bavarian town a few weeks later, on the HS225 ski flying hill in early February, before a brace of podium finishes in Sapporo.
On top in PyeongChang
Another season highlight arrived on 15 February, when Kraft claimed large-hill victory at the PyeongChang 2018 test event, held at the Alpensia Ski Jumping Centre. The Austrian made a strong start with an opening jump of 138m and rammed home his advantage by going out to 137.5m with his second effort.
His total of 293.5 points took him well clear of Germany’s Andreas Wellinger and Poland’s two-time reigning Olympic champion Kamil Stoch and gave him the eighth World Cup win of his career, his fourth of the season and his sixth consecutive top-three finish.
“It’s going really well for me at the moment,” he said afterwards. “I did well here right from the start, also on the normal hill. And I knew that usually I jump even better on a large hill. There are hills where it’s relatively easy to jump far and I’m glad that this one here is one of those hills for me.”
Aside from the hill, Kraft also had praised for Alpensia’s huge wind net: “I think this is the best wind net I have ever seen. It’s perfect to protect the hill. Of course, I want to fight for the top again tomorrow, but I’ll need two perfect jumps again for that.”
Kraft completed a very productive pre-Olympic reconnaissance mission the following day, finishing second on the normal hill, just behind Maciej Kot of Poland.
Double coronation in Lahti
The Austrian maintained his impressive momentum by starring at the World Championships in Lahti in late February, winning his maiden world title on the normal hill.
Taking the first-round lead with a jump of 99.5m, he then held off the challenge of German duo Andreas Wellinger and Markus Eisenbichler, who both went out to over 100m with their second attempts but were denied victory when Kraft leapt 98m.
Not content with that, Kraft won silver with Hayböck, Daniela Iraschko-Stolz and Jacqueline Seifriedsberger in the mixed-team normal hill event 24 hours later, the Austrians finishing behind Germany.
Then came a second individual gold on the large hill, secured by two jumps of 127.5m and the highest style marks, as the Austrian took victory from Wellinger.
Just for good measure, he then collected bronze in the team large hill event with Anders Fannemel, Manuel Fettner and Gregor Schlierenzauer.
“What happened there is still hard to believe! Double World Champion and overall four medals!” he wrote on his blog. “Wicked! Then the welcome at the airport at home. Goosebumps again.”
A world record and more titles
And on Kraft went, claiming team and individual wins in Oslo at the start of the new ten-day Raw Air tournament in Norway, followed by victory on the large hill in Trondheim, which was sealed with a huge second leap of 142.5m and maximum style marks.
There was more to come as the tournament continued in Vikersund on 18 March, where Kraft posted a new ski flying world record of 253.5m in the team competition, helping Austria to take third place. In finishing fifth in the individual event, he made sure he would be crowned the first Raw Air champion.
Kraft wrapped things up by winning the last two individual events of the season, held on the HS225 hill in Planica (SLO) on 25 and 26 March. His final leap of 250m gave him the World Cup title by a margin of 141 points from Stoch. As well as collecting the first big crystal globe of his career, he also picked up a small one for ski flying.
After a year like that, the awesome Austrian can only hope to maintain his form when he goes for gold at PyeongChang 2018, where he is sure to figure among the favourites.