PARK CITY, Utah -- Alan Alborn's gut tells him to keep jumping. His bank account tells him to quit and find a job that pays. His coach won't tell him what to do, but he wants Alborn to keep jumping. His parents probably wouldn't mind telling him to stop jumping, but they'll support whatever he chooses to do.
What is a 21-year-old American ski jumper to do?
Alborn is the best ski jumper this country has ever seen, and he has not yet hit his prime. Yet here he is at the crossroads of his career.
If he were German or Austrian or Finnish, there would be no debate. He would keep ski jumping for another Olympic cycle or until someone better knocked him off the team. He would have sponsorships, status, a career.
But he is American, and making a living as a ski jumper here is like making a living as a football player in Iceland.
And so the Anchorage man has a dilemma. Will he stop ski jumping at the end of the season or continue?
"It depends on how the rest of the season goes, and a lot of it has to do with sponsorships and the team environment," Alborn said Monday after the 120-meter team jumping competition at Utah Olympic Park. "You can't quit in the middle of the season, and there are some exciting competitions coming up."
Alborn talked about retirement last week after a disastrous day in the individual 120-meter competition. After finishing 11th in the 90-meter event, he failed to qualify for a second jump in the big-hill competition, an outcome so shattering that Alborn said he was ready to quit jumping.
It was a statement made in the emotion of the moment.
"The media guys got me down here at a bad time," he said.
"After a disappointing performance like that, your mind gets twisted around so much. It's not like baseball or football, where it's a whole team effort. You train all the time and focus on one objective, and when it doesn't happen, it really tears you down."
Alborn's objective at the Winter Olympics was to win a medal. Lofty expectations, some people might say, but not so unrealistic that he would need a miracle to realize them. He emerged as one of the world's best jumpers during the summer Grand Prix circuit and placed in the top 10 in three World Cup events before the Olympics.
If he had jumped the way he did Monday in the individual 120-meter event, he would have finished 10th.
"Last year, I had a pretty big breakthrough. After a season like that, it'd be really tough" to quit, Alborn said.
With the possible exception of his parents, who would like to see more of their son than his current travel schedule allows, nobody wants Alborn to quit.
Alborn's coach, Kari Ylianttila, is retiring after this season. But he doesn't want to see Alborn join him in retirement.
"He's not even close to his peak, physically or skillwise, on the hill," Ylianttila said. "That is why I would like him to continue."
Alborn's teammates want him around too.
"It would be a tremendous loss," said Brian Welch, 18. "For a long time we haven't had any idols to look up to, and Alan gives us someone to look up to. It'd be pretty devastating."
Tommy Schwall, 18, says Alborn's potential has been only "semitapped." He hopes Alborn stays because he thinks Alborn's success can lead to success for other members of the team.
"A rising tide lifts all the boats, and he's been rising," Schwall said. "It would hurt us more than anyone would know. We can stand and watch him train and see his focus. We don't have a chance to watch the Germans or Finns."
But all of the Americans can understand why a ski jumper in this country might hang up the foam rubber suit at an early age.
"The difference between me and the Austrian guys who are still jumping when they're 30 is, because they're popular, they make money. They consider it to be a job, and they have a retirement plan," he said.
Alborn's teammates can't remember the last time a U.S. jumper stuck around the sport into his mid-20s.
Despite disappointing Olympic results, Alborn thinks he will continue to improve. He has yet to hit a plateau.
He said it would be hard to quit knowing that he's already a world-class jumper with promise.
"But I think every athlete is like that. You keep going and going, but at some time you have to decide to move on," he said.
The biggest factor that will determine Alborn's future is whether he can support himself financially as a ski jumper. But there are other factors.
Being competitive at the highest level is one of them. Finding another coach who, like Ylianttila, shares the goal of wanting to win and wanting to do the things necessary to win is another. Being willing to live and train somewhere besides Alaska, which he loves, is another.
What does his gut tell him?
"Keep jumping," Alborn said. "I've put in so much time and effort, it'd be hard to move on. I love this sport."
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