PARK CITY, Utah -- Whether strapped to skis or soaring on wings, Alan Alborn has been flying solo most of his life.
And in the next few days, the U.S. ski jumper wants to make a historic ascent.
Alborn, who obtained his pilot's license when he was 16 and owns a Cessna 185 plane, is the best U.S. jumper in more than a decade.
Based on some impressive performances on the World Cup circuit this season, the 21-year-old nicknamed ''Airborne'', has a realistic shot at ending America's 78-year Olympic medal drought in ski jumping.
''This would be a good time to do it,'' Alborn said Thursday following a practice jump off the 90-meter hill at Utah Olympic Park in preparation for Friday's qualifying. ''Americans love winners.''
The U.S. captured its one and only ski jumping medal in 1924 at Chamonix, France, when Anders Haugen took the bronze. Haugen originally finished fourth, but a scorekeeper's error was later corrected and he finally got his medal in 1974 during a ceremony in Oslo.
Alborn hopes to get the U.S. back on the awards podium.
Last year, Alborn, who began jumping as a 9-year-old in his hometown of Anchorage, Alaska, became the first American to jump farther than 200 meters (656 feet).
Then, this past December, he finished fourth in a World Cup event in Engelberg, Switzerland -- the best finish by a U.S. jumper since Jim Holland took second in a 1990 event.
Alborn has had three Top 10 finishes, and at long last, he has given the U.S. team some hope. And more importantly, he has earned the Americans some respect in a sport dominated by Norway, Finland, Germany and Japan.
''Before we were just a joke,'' said Alborn, who as a 17-year-old finished 42nd in the 90-meter event at Nagano in '98. ''But now they know that we can compete with them. They take us a lot more seriously.''
Under a blazing sun that made the temperature feel like 72 degrees at the hill's base, Alborn had practice jumps of 85.5, 88.5 and 87.5 meters in Thursday's session -- placing him in the top 20 among 72 jumpers.
''I wasn't happy with my jumps,'' said Alborn, who has been battling a ''mild cold.'' I have to jump with a little more direction.''
Germany's Sven Hannewald and Poland's Adam Malysz, who have dominated the World Cup circuit this season, were 1-2 in practice and are expected to be there again in Sunday's final.
They'll be medal favorites only.
Alborn and a young U.S. team featuring 17-year-old Clint Jones and 18-year-olds Tommy Schwall and Brian Welch, will be backed by a home crowd cheering anything and everything in red, white and blue.
''It should be great,'' Alborn said. ''I think it will give everyone a big boost. Expectations for this team have been very low for a long time. But it's time for the young guys to step up.''
These Olympics already feel very different to Alborn, and not just because he'll be jumping on the same hills he has trained on full-time since moving to Utah last year.
Alborn said he was overwhelmed at Nagano, where he finished 42nd on the 90-meter hill and 44th on the big hill.
''It was a big stepping stone for me, just getting to compete in an Olympics,'' he said. ''That's helped me from then until now. I have a totally different mindset as far as goals or expectations.''
More mature now, and in the best shape of his life, the little boy who always wanted to fly like his father, a commercial airline pilot, is trying to keep his emotions grounded.
''This is the time,'' he said.
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