This story originally appeared in the February 1958 issue of Guideposts and is reprinted here with permission.
"This is the greatest thrill life has to offer," I said to myself as I stood poised at the top of the world's highest ski jump at Oberstdorf, Germany. It is an electrifying experience just to see men make that jump, let alone to be part of the spectacle!
For a moment I paused, all alone, 650 feet above the outrun of the jump. Below, 80,000 people seemed no bigger than ants. I tried to brush from my mind the vivid picture of the Italian skier who, the previous year, had hurtled crazily out of control for several hundred feet, to land on his back and bounce down the slope, broken and lifeless.Then the signal was given.
Suddenly the crowd was silent as I plummeted down, crouched for the take-off. My speed was picked up by a system of electric eyes at over 80 miles per hour. The world careened madly past. My senses couldn't keep pace with the scream of the wind and the blur of trees, snow and sky.
And suddenly I was in the air, hanging motionless over the white knoll below--lost in the mystery of another world altogether. After what seemed an eternity, I landed 16 feet beyond the 400-foot mark, the longest jump an American skier had ever made.
But mere statistics could never describe what I had just experienced.
Two months later I was aboard a plane bound back to the United States. The engines droned endlessly, I knew no one aboard--it was a good time for thinking. Thinking! There had been so little of it in my life. Always, energies had been spent doing things. From the time I strapped on my first pair of skis at the age of three, until the moment I stepped on that plane, I'd been living from one moment of high adventure to the next. Boxing, pole-vaulting, high diving, mountain climbing in the summer, football in the fall, and in the winter-most thrilling of all-skiing.
And at last, in 1952, I was picked for the Olympic team. The months of practice, the trip to Europe, the Olympic Games in Oslo--they were the high points of my life.And then the Olympics were over. For the rest of that winter I bummed restlessly from tournament to tournament: Norway, Yugoslavia, Germany, and the record-making jump at Oberstdorf. Always a new challenge, a new jump, one more skier I wanted to beat, a new thrill ahead.
The ski season over, I went to Paris and made the rounds of bistros, music halls, night spots, but even the thrills of Paris wear thin after awhile. I boarded the plane for New York.Up there over the Atlantic, I tried to summon up the excitement of the winter behind me. It didn't come. I was forced to sit still, and as the engines droned on I half-admitted that my "triumphs" in Europe had been for me simply thrill-seeking. I had been trying desperately to recapture the tremendous elation of the Olympics, trying to make it last.
And suddenly I said aloud, "What then, does last? What's important? What's the answer?" I was as startled by the questions as my seat mate. I was 23 years old, and never before had such questions even occurred to me. I turned red, apologized, and tried to push the stubborn questions away.
When the plane landed in New York, I all but ran down the steps, so happy was I to be out in the world of doing things once more. I'd had enough of thinking. I looked up a buddy, and for a month we "did the town." I discovered that I was something of a celebrity. In the daytime there were appearances, speeches, endorsements; at night we went to the race tracks or the night clubs. I never stopped moving.
But the thrills of New York soon wore thin too. It was May, the tennis season! I went home to Colorado and threw myself into tennis as though my life depended on it. My draft call was coming up, and I was almost glad. Maybe I'd be sent to Korea. Dodging bullets--there'd be excitement that didn't wear thin!
I leaned forward, waiting for the answer like a tennis player waiting for the serve. It was very short. "Try Jesus," he said.
To this day, I don't know whether the speaker was finished, or whether I got up and walked out in front of him and all those people. I only remember that suddenly I was outside, running, racing toward the comforting bulk of the mountain, away from the lecture hall. An hour later I lay on my back on a steep slope, and let the words I'd been running from catch up with me.