Imagine sliding down a ramp at 55 mph, then being propelled forward high into the air, everything going quiet as your body almost weightlessly sails along until landing with a thud, your limbs heavy, your body solid again.
That's what ski jumping feels like, said 16-year-old Kevin Bickner.
Kevin BicknerAge: 16
School: Wauconda High School, although I was home schooled this last semester.
Who inspired you? My family because they support me. Also, older more experienced jumpers on the USA team, because I want to be like them.
What's on your iPod? Everything except country.
What book are you reading? I don't really read books that much.
The three words that best describe you? Focused. Driven. Hardworking.
After thousands of leaps, he has become one of the best young ski jumpers in the nation.
"If you have a really good jump, you can feel it right away -- you get a lot more height. You feel yourself lift up in the air," said Kevin, a Wauconda resident who trained at Norge Ski Club in Fox River Grove. "Up there, you don't hear anything because you zone out completely."
Kevin is among seven athletes from across the country -- and the only one from Illinois -- who last month was named to the USA Ski Jumping development team.
Earlier this year, he took gold medals in the individual, elimination and team competitions at the U.S. Ski Jumping Junior National Championships held in Minnesota.
"My dream is to be number one in the World Cup circuit and winning the Olympics. I don't know if that's going to happen, but I'm going to try to make it happen," he said.
With continued hard work and training, Kevin's goal is attainable, said USA Ski Jumping Head Coach Clinton Jones.
Kevin has the perfect build for a ski jumper -- 140 pounds on a 6-foot frame, but with explosive leg muscles -- along with the ever-important positive attitude, Jones said.
"Kevin has great potential, and his status on the development team will give him the opportunity to train with our country's best jumpers," he said. "Hopefully, over the next few years we will see him continue to grow as an athlete, and by the next (2018) Olympics, he might very well be a contender to make the U.S. team."
Alan Johnson, athletic director for the U.S. ski jumping team, said he's been keeping an eye on Kevin since he was 12.
"He's always been on our radar screen as being someone with a lot of talent," he said. "We named him to our development team because he was, for 16 and under, one of the top two kids in the whole country. He's got a ton of talent. "
This weekend, Kevin will be moving to Park City, Utah, to live and train with the rest of the development team alongside the national ski jumping A and B teams.
His schedule will be most demanding, with four to five jumping sessions per week, along with weights and plyometrics training six days a week and hours of watching ski jumping footage.
"It's almost like a full-time job," Johnson said. "That's what the best people in the world do, and if we want to even be thinking about trying to be competitive with him, we've got to be doing that with him."
Kevin just finished his sophomore year of high school. He attended Wauconda High School, where he had a 3.5 GPA, but was home-schooled this last semester because of his hectic travel schedule. He's planning to take the ACT test and earn a GED so he can start college classes in the fall. The U.S. development team offers scholarships for online classes through DeVry University.
His first time at U.S. Junior Nationals was at age 12. He took second place in 2010 and 2011 and won his first gold medal last year before adding three more in February.
He's competed across the country, including as far away as Alaska, Colorado and Vermont, as well as at international events in Canada, Poland, Germany and Austria. The sport is much more popular in Europe, he notes.
"In Poland, I would be walking down (from the jump) and there would be people with pads and pens asking me to sign autographs," he said. "I wish it was a more popular sport here, because there would be a lot more jumpers. Personally, I think it would be nice for people to think it was cooler. Also, it would get better funding."
Kevin started ski jumping at age 9 shortly after he watched his first tournament at Norge Ski Hill in Fox River Grove at a neighbor's suggestion. His younger sister, 12-year-old Kailey, has also become a ski jumper.
"My first jump, I fell," Kevin said. "After a week, I had a couple of black eyes and bruises. But it seemed like fun to me. I wasn't good when I started. Nobody is."
By the time he turned 11, Kevin was doing Norge Ski Hill's tallest, 70-meter jump -- though he admits that on his first attempt, he was so scared, he had to climb back down.
At age 12, he did the 120-meter jump in Park City, and now he's looking forward to jumping 170 meters at Copper Peak, in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, which early next year will host its first meet in 20 years.
Kevin's mother, Maureen, watched with trepidation when her son first took up the sport but gradually grew to love it.
"He's always like a daredevil," she said. "I started to like the idea that he'd be doing this, getting his adrenaline rush in a controlled way that I felt was much safer."
His father, Tom, has also developed a passion for ski jumping, eventually becoming a competition judge. Last month, he was elected to the USA Ski Jumping board of directors.
Oleg Glyvka of Fox River Grove, who coached Kevin until 2009, said Kevin was always a good listener and never complained about what he was asked to do.
After a couple of years, Kevin began to understand the concept of applying technique to his jumps, not an easy feat for young boys, Glyvka said. "It's like he pushed the button, and he started jumping much better."
Kevin never had to be prodded to put in the work, Tom Bickner said.
"He independently would just go out and do his practice techniques. He was self-motivated to get better," he said.
When he was younger, Kevin would tie a bungee chord to a tree in the yard to mimic the forward-jumping motion of the ski jump. These days, he practices his balance on a chord tied between two trees.
Kailey, who will be a seventh-grader at Wauconda Middle School, also has jumped the 70-meter hill at Norge and hopes to make it to the U.S. Junior Nationals like her brother.
"It's pretty cool. I get to brag to my friends about it," she said. "The main thing I learned by watching my brother is that maybe I could get that far. It gives me hope."
Becoming a better athlete is all about paying painstaking attention to detail, Kevin said.
His weakness has always been his struggle to keep his arms close to his body, crucial to remaining aerodynamic through the jump, he said.
"Every jump, you fix something or you break an old habit that you have," he said.
Although he keeps competing at increasingly higher levels, Kevin said it's not in his nature to be intimidated by new challenges.
"You never do that well when you're super nervous about jumping," he said. "I usually try to relax before. I try not to think about anything, because the more you think about your jump, you won't do that good."
• Elena Ferrarin wrote today's column. If you know of someone whose story just wows you, please send a note including name, town, email and phone contacts for you and the nominee to firstname.lastname@example.org.