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.
I'd known about Jesus all my life, believed in Him too--as an idea or a principle. But there on that mountainside for the first time, I spoke to Him as a person.
"Show me," I whispered. "Show me how to try."
It was almost dawn when I started down the mountain, happier than I had ever been in my life.
A few days later my draft notice came through: I was assigned as an instructor in the newly formed Mountain and Cold Weather Command. With it, came my first opportunity to try Him.
Everyone has a weak spot in his make-up. With me it has been honesty. I wasn't exactly a liar, but on occasions when my performance hadn't been quite so good I--well, described it later in the most favorable light I could find. Now, with the men in my Command, I tried the experiment of plain, undecorated truth.
One warm afternoon on the tennis court, I was conscious of a pain in my side. After dinner, I went for a long walk under the stars, trying to make the pain go away. By the time I returned home my appendix had ruptured; I was on the operating table for three hours, and in the hospital for a month and a half.
For the second time that year I was forced to lie quietly where my thoughts could reach me. "What's important? What's the answer?" Why did these questions nag me? I was an athlete, not a philosopher. Questions like these had no place in my life. Anyway, I had the answer: live for the thrills life has to offer. What other answer was there?Out of the hospital I was more restless than before. I went to visit my brother in California. Laurie sensed right away that something was wrong. "You seem at loose ends, Keith," he said. "Why don't you come up to the Conference with me?" The young adult group at Laurie's church was planning to spend a week at a camp up in the San Bernardino mountains with young people from other churches. I looked at Laurie blankly. It didn't sound like my kind of fun.
"We'll be right up in the mountains," he went on, knowing I had never been able to say "no" to a mountain. "Maybe you can get in some climbing." I went with him.
I attended a couple of lectures and a Bible study class or two, but mostly I climbed and hiked and swam. The final night of the Conference came, and I decided I'd better put in an appearance at the closing lecture. The big hall was packed. I sat back, not listening much, drowsy in the warmth of the room. The speaker was winding up his talk. ". . . because pleasures like these are not lasting," he was saying. "What then, does last? What's important in the long run? What's the answer?"
I sat up straight in my chair. Those were my questions! The very words I had said aloud on the plane! The questions that had never quite let me alone since then.
Awkwardly, I tried to "open up" to this boy, to tell him what Christ had meant to me, what He could do for him. It seemed to mean something to Jack; together we prayed that this experience of being caught would work for good in his life. When his court-martial came up, they threw the book at him. He came into my quarters that night and called me and my prayers every name he knew and a few he made up just for the occasion.
It was like a bad spill on the slopes, a meet where I'd come in last. But strangely enough, the defeat didn't panic me. I wasn't running away anymore.
It's not the end of the story, either. A few months ago I saw Jack again at a friend's wedding and he caught my arm. "I've been looking for you, Keith," he said, "I thought you'd like to know. I'm going into the ministry."
As for me, I've decided that my life can best be spent telling young people the "good news" that I've found. Sports can help me do this. I haven't changed much, in one respect. I'm still living for thrills. But I'm living now for the big ones, the ones that don't wear thin.