The jump begins here, at the top of the world, looking down at a narrow white chute into space. It is 26 stories high, black wood and snow, designed like the slide of some 8-year-old's nightmare -- steep, pale, unimaginably huge, spitting its victims over a cliff -- and it is just at this point, this precarious lip where the contest begins, that Jim Denney will commit himself to God. He will do so quietly, without undue ceremony, braced for the start in his last whistling surge of faith and adrenalin, body dropped down in that odd hedgehog airfoil position skiers call a tuck. He must tuck like a downhiller, bent-kneed and streamlined and shaped like an egg. He must also stay coiled, ready to leap, because when he reaches the end of the downhill drop -- plummets straight down the chute and runs smack out of road at 60-plus miles per hour -- he must spring out into the winter air.

There will be the sound of his breath, the sudden short gasp and the sharp wordless "Unh," at the moment of takeoff, when everything sets. The spring must be fierce, the angle precise, high enough for airlift, low enough for distance. Hurtling midair, strapped at the feet to 30 pounds of long, waxed fiberglass, he will ignore his survival instincts and lean into the fall, forward, forward, arms at his sides, as though coming to kiss the tips of his skis. The wind will rush, sssHHHHHH, as he flies, sucking cold, staring down at the smooth slope of snow way below where he must land like a jet touching ground. This flying is inborn; you have it or you don't, and if you don't, no amount of furious coaching will tell you what particular move, what slight shift of body or direction, what minuscule adjustment in angle will perfect the human airfoil and carry you the extra few meters.Jumpers call it a "feel for the air," and they talk, sounding grieved, about this or that jumper with inspired spring and exquisite physique and guts and devotion -- and no feel for the air. "A great jumper," they will say, "from the neck down." If somewhere within there is fear pounding fast -- if a jumper carries the memory of Reed Zuehlke catching an edge, crashing sideways and dislocating his knee as he shot through the 90-meter jump outrun in 1978 at Oberstdorf, West Germany; if another remembers Jeff Davis, the gifted Colorado boy, hitting the 90-meter takeoff wrong the year before at Lahti, Finland, and flipping skis over head as he hurtled midair, tumbling over and over to land unconscious at the bottom -- the fear is clamped down, far inside, where it will not distract from the feel for the air.

Jim Denney has the feel. He can describe it but he cannot explain it, no matter how frequently he is asked. "Like floating on a bed of air," he says, and, "The biggest thing you hear is the rush of the wind." The coaches who watch him glide, lean and intense against bleached winter skies, will say things like, "That boy was born to ski." But they cannot tell you either why, out of a lineup of perfectly honed winter athletes, a very few -- and one more than all the rest -- leap out into space with the joy and precision of an uncaged hawk. "It's a touch," says Glenn Kotlarek, whose full-time work is coaching young Americans in a sport this country thinks is the ethereal, suicidal madness of nations where it is usually winter. "Jimmy's got that special quality. In international competition, when he has a good jump, people just shake their heads and say, 'Wow!'"

Competitive jumping is not purely a contest of distances. On both the 70-meter and the 90-meter jumps -- each measured from the takeoff to the point where the steep slope starts to curve into flat runoff -- every jumper must sail past five judges, who watch for balance, stability, long motionless flight, easy bent-knee landing (with the arms held steady and one foot slightly behind the other, in the traditional Telemark position) and a controlled glide back to a stop. That is what makes the airborne gift so crucial: The skier who can do what Kotlarek describes -- whose, sure, distilled grace can make judges' eyes widen -- is most likely to win, even more so sometimes than a clumsier skier who manages a longer jump.

And if coaches and pundits are to be believed, Jim Denney, a 22-year-old with the slight, hard build of a teen-age Bill Rodgers, holds a greater chance of winning a medal than any American jumper in recent Olympic history. He sailed through the pretrials last February with the third-best jump on the Lake Placid 90-meter; within a matter of weeks he had placed third and then first in a series of 90-meter jumps in Sweden and Finland. The first in Finland was a particular triumph: Denney beat Pentti Kokkonen, the Finnish jumper who dominated last year's competition and won the 90-meter Olympic pretrials, on Kokkonen's home territory. Lake Placid, of course, is Denney's home territory -- "our mountain," he has called it -- and the excitement is mounting over this Olympic pairing, the enormous jump on American soil and the slim Minnesotan who flies like a sailplane.

Only one American has even won an Olympic medal for ski jumping, and it took him 50 years to get it. In 1924, a jumper named Anders Haugen was listed in fourth place, behind a Norwegian; many years later, while looking over the 1924 results, another Norwegian discovered a mistake in the figuring of the points and saw that the bronze medal rightly belonged to Haugen, the American. That was the United States' shining moment in Olympic jumping competition, which gives you some idea. Ski-jumping glory belongs by tradition to Finland and Norway, where great jumping is respectable heroism and champions are nationally known. There also are occasional flurries of jumping excitement in Austria, East and West Germany and Japan; but Americans, up until this year, have had their heads full of downhill, or figure skaters, or ice hockey. Remember Gene Kotlarek, brother of Glenn Kotlarek, the U.S. jumpers' coach? Thought not. Gene was the national champion three times. Their father, at various times, was national jumping champion for every existing class and age group. There may be only one city in America where this causes a civic fuss even remotely reminiscent of Helsinki, or Oslo. It is the unofficial ski-jumping capital of the nation, population 95,000, a graceful old northern Minnesota city called Duluth.

Denney comes from Duluth, as do Kotlarek, and four other jumpers -- including Denney's two brothers -- on the exceptionally ardent and capable young American team. The assistant coach, Pentti Ranta, lives in Duluth. This is not a conspiracy, although you will catch jumpers from Wisconsin muttering good-naturedly about "all those goofballs from Duluth." Duluth has a winter that lumbers in somewhere around late October, a penchant for outdoor sports and a Scandinavian populace so large that one of the prettiest parks in town is named after Leif Ericson, who considerably predated that Italian upstart, Christopher Columbus.

Ski jumping began in the north countries. It is believed that Scandinavians -- who, in what we may assume was a creativity born of desperation, invented numerous remarkable things to do with snow, like sweating profusely indoors and then rolling in it -- were the first human beings to attempt flight by skiing off cliffs. The Norwegian skier Sondre Norheim, who helped invent the modern ski binding, made the first official jump 110 years ago at a meet in Telemark, Norway. He plummeted down a descent considerably less hair-raising than the man-made contraptions at Lake Placid and soared a total of 20 meters (66 feet) or about one-sixth the distance the best Olympic skiers are likely to jump this year.

It is not, the jumpers insist, a particularly dangerous sport. "It's certainly safer than Alpine skiing," Kotlarek says. "There's a bunch of dingdongs out Alpine skiing that don't know the front of the ski from the back, and some guy slaps 'em into equipment, and the next thing you know they're wheeling 'em off with a broken leg. We don't have that type of person involved in ski jumping. The people that do it don't consider it a dangerous sport. It's the other people that consider it dangerous."

The spectacular televised jumper's crash, which replays every week on ABC Wide World of Sports, is the despair of jumping boosters. The falling jumper is Veinko Bogotaj, a Yugoslavian who was knocked unconscious in Oberstdorf during the 1970 International Ski Flying Championships, a competition that allows jumps considerably longer than those at the Olympics. "They run it over and over again," Kotlarek complains. "It's just not fair to the sport to do that."

There was a death five years ago before helmets became mandatory in domestic and international competition. At Brattleboro, Vt., during practice on the 70-meter jump, a young Midwestern jumper named Jeff Wright landed off-balance, hit a rough spot on the hard-packed snow and pitched forward onto his head. He catapulted into the air, landed on his head again and died without regaining consciousness. In the early '70s, two Canadian jumpers were hurt in ski flying accidents in Ironwood, Mich.; one was paralyzed. At Berlin, N.H., a jumper flipped midair in a gust of wind and landed on his back. He was paralyzed from the waist down.

Jeff Davis knew that paralyzed jumper in college. It was Davis who somersaulted mid-jump at Lahti, who felt the air press hard on his back and knew instantly that he had lost the jump, that he was falling, falling -- "You can think a lot of things up there while you're jumping, a lot more than most people believe," Davis says -- and who clawed back to consciousness, finally, in a Finland hospital. Davis still jumps. He jumps beautifully. Ranta, the assistant coach, speaks of him as "the next superstar." Accidents, his own or his friend's, are not something he thinks about. "Have to get that out of my head," Davis says, brisk and straightforward, "or I would never have jumped good at all again." He has jumped since childhood -- he grew up in Steamboat Springs, Colo. -- and now, at 21, having nearly jumped himself into a coma two years earlier, he is out before Christmas on an almost deserted mountain in Thunder Bay, Ontario, suited up in air that warms at noon to five degrees below zero, wrapping blankets around his shoulders as he rides up on the chairlift, limbering for the jump with a few quick kneebends in the small snowy shelter that stands at the top. He is a U.S. Ski Team jumper, out with his team, training for the Olympics.

"it's just like -- when you go off, everything's so quiet -- you don't hear anything," he says softly, trying to get warm in the lodge between jumps. "It's just like everyone's dreams of flying, by themselves, like a bird. And that's what it is. You can make yourself go short, or far. It's not the feeling like getting in a car and driving fast, or something. I don't even think a downhill racer has the same feeling. I'm sure they must get a rush, but -- being in the air -- the longer you're in the air, the better it feels."

Davis rubs his hands together. He is used to the dampness. "If you come off, and it feels like something grabs you from above and just lifts your body, usually you've got it," he says. g

"It's addicting," he says. "A lot of old guys that come out used to be on the team, they always come out and say they're going to quit. But they always take a few jumps. because they can't stop."

'You come to the takeoff. Sixty miles per hour. And you're throwing yourself out in the air, you know. Flying. You wonder if your tips are going to come up or go down. There's a lot of faith involved. You've got to leave your cares behind -- and naturally being safe -- and go for it."

Jim Denney is swigging 7-Up as he talks, one leg folded comfortably underneath him on his hotel room bed in Thunder Bay. His voice is soft. He manner is serious. He may be the best American ski jumper in history.

"I just couldn't think of anything else in the winter I'd rather do," Denney says.

He cannot remember the first time he went off a jump. He might have been 3 or 4 years old. His father built jumps in the back of the house and the boys clambered up, skis on their feet. The neighbors left their lights on to watch the Denney boys jump. At Christmas they gathered leftover Christmas trees and stacked them up for jump starts -- anything to get higher. Jim Denney loved it. He grew taller, and stronger, and impatient with the overgrown bump in his back yard, so he started jumping at Chester Park, which has quite a resepctable series of natural and man-made jumps and is the true center of the Duluth jumping underworld. After school, the Denney boys fled to Chester Park. When blizzards shut the schools -- and it takes a formidable blizzard to slow down Duluth -- the boys put a few extra layers on and jumped in the blizzard. On his seventh Christmas, Jim Denney found his first pair of jumping skis leaning against the wall by the Christmas tree -- Finnish skis, light blue on the top, gray on the bottom.

He was already competing by then, and he knew what he wanted. "Go to the Olympics," Denney says. "That seemed to be the ultimate in ski jumping. It's as far as you can go, you know. There's the Super Bowl in football, the World Series in baseball. Ski jumping, there's no -- that's the ultimate . . . [and] ever since I was very young, I've always thought I could win."

He was asked to join the U.S. Ski Team after coaches watched his performance at a competition in Washington state in 1974, and that year Denney jumped in the European Junior Championship in France. He shakes his head. "It was amazing how many guys could ski so good. Back home you could have a bad day and still whip just about everybody on the hill. Up there it wasn't like that at all." The East Germans were stronger, bigger, more controlled. Toni Innauer, the great Austrain jumper who would take the gold and silver medals two years later at Innsbruck, flew so far that even when they made him start from a lower position, his distances were astonishing. w

Properly humbled, Denney came back to the States -- and trained. U.S. Ski Team jumpers train, one way or another, 11 months a year. In the non-winter seasons they run and lift weights, each athlete working under an individual program designed by the coaches to conform to his capacity and muscle configuration. In winter they train even when they are not jumping, or climbing long flights of staris up jumps that have no chairlift access, or sidestepping quickly up narrow faces to properly pack down the snow. Every morning and every evening, while it is dark outside, they must stretch, and bend, and jump over and over, now on one foot, now on both feet, now short, now long. They jump whereever there is room for a young male body to propel itself into the air, so that startled hotel guests will on occasion come upon what looks at first glance like an underwear-clad college fraternity practicing impromptu frog leaps down the hall. It is only in the jump itself, which seems a slow and strong and astonishingly powerful arc, that these boys in longjohns look like athletes at work. Their standing broad jumps measured 9, 10, 11 feet -- very good by any track team's standards -- and they will frequently execute five in a row, springing the length of a gymnasium or a carpeted hallway.

On an instant's notice they will "spot" each other, one jumper bracing himself in front of another to catch him, extended midair like a playful ballet dancer. That is the way Denney trained, working up slowly to international-competition strength. In the 1976 Olympics he finished 21st in the 70-meter jump and 18th in the 90-meter; the four years' work that followed culminated last January with his remarkable Finalnd defeat of Pentti Kokkonen.

Denney will marry in the spring, after the Olympics. He thinks he would like to coach young Duluth jumpers, but he has no aspirations to national coaching or long-term jumping He has nearly completed his undergraduate work at the University of Minnesota's Duluth campus, and when he stops plummeting down snowy slides into the air, Jim Denney plans to find a job in his hometown, accounting.

Accounting?

"I love accounting," Denney says.

He recites to himself from the Bible sometimes. He is especially fond of the psalms of King David. "'I forsaw the Lord always before my face, for He is on my right hand that should not be moved' -- I could imagine he'd be saying this when he was before the armies, or Before Goliath," Denney says. The words are silent music as he waits at the start, breathing hard, flexing his legs, ski tips poised at the top of the run. When the winds are strong and the light is flat and a sharp cross-gust might slap him midair, then Jim Denney feels something like fear. He has never refused a jump in competition. "I suppose you could -- you know -- take your number off and walk down, and go away," he says dubiously. "But that's . . ."

That's what?

He scratches his head. "I don't suppose you could say 'cop-out,'" he says. "But to me it's kind of an exercise of your faith. That, really, in a situation like that, puts you to where you've got to trust in Him, that He's going to lead you through that wind -- going to take care of you."

That seems like an awful lot to ask.

Denney smiles. "He's never failed me yet."

'I think you have one of the strongest teams in the world now, physically," says Pentti Ranta in his soft Finnish accent, pointing a movie camera at the helmeted bodies in stretch suits that sail out and past him on the Thunder Bay 70-meter jump. "The whole team is jumping good, consistently." This evening he will study the film on a video-tape machine in his hotel room, running it slowly, stopping it mid-jump, examining over and over each jumper's "zero point two seconds," as he calls it -- the moment of takeoff. The jumpers themselves were up before dawn this morning in the faded hotel, working quickly through the pancakes and oatmeal and coffee and eggs, in the first light loading into the blue and white ski-team van that carried them out to the mountain. Somebody snapped in an Elton John tape and "Benny and the Jets" blared out as the van moved slowly through the streets of downtown Thunder Bay, past winter plumes of auto exhaust and faces invisible under fur-trimmed hoods. This is how the ski team lives in the winter; hotel rooms, sore muscles, no pay (except the $5 or $10 a day in spending money given them by host countries in international competition) and six-hour days spent practicing outdoors in places like western Ontario, where the cold freezes up all the nose haris every time you inhale.

"You know what we should do for training in Thunder Bay," jokes Terry Kern, blowing warm air into his palms, "is rent out a meat locker, and instead of going into the sauna, go into the meat locker and sit in our shorts for 15 minutes, or so." Kern is a "C" team jumper, which means there is no money for his travel expenses; he gets free equipment, but must pay his own way. There are a handful of jumpers like this, so addicted to jumping, so fueled by the flying and the contest, that they will work seven months to pay for a winter's worth of coaching and companionship and access to good jumps, all of which the eight "A" and "B" team members get free. Jeff Broman, whose brother John will compete in the Olympics for the ski team, worked all summer long for Minnesota Power and Light to save enough money for this season's training. "This has really been my dream, all through my skiing career, just to travel with the team, see how they live," Jeff Broman says. During the Lake Placid events themselves, the team will need skiers to act as "trail riders," testing the speed and pack of the jumps, and that is something Jeff Broman would very much like to do. Trail riding may fall short of glamor, but it will take him -- and his jumping skis -- to the winter Olympics.

And the winter Olympics is where it all peaks. Two besides Denney qualified early for the team -- Chirs McNeill, a young Montana man who grew up skiing at Steamboat Springs, Colo., and John Broman, who comes from Minneapolis and was nurtured, as a jumper, by the friendly network of ski clubs that pass along moral support and outgrown equipment.

Still, even now, even as the Olympic commotion grows deafening to winter athletes' ears, what matters more than anything is the flying. They train and they strain and they spring over and over, willing their legs to more strength and more accuracy, but all of that comes from the joy of the flight. If you ask a jumper about the day he began, he will generally look at you with the startled, slightly embarrassed expression of a man asked to recall his first great love. "I went to the top of the jump just as fast as I could, never even took my skis off, I buzzed around the corner and all of a sudden I was on the track," says Chris McNeill, voice soft in memory as the ski van carries him back to the hotel through the sub-zero Thunder Bay night. "The flying aspect, the speed . . . just the awesomness . . ." It was Graham Jump, the big old 90-meter town institution at Steamboat Springs, and McNeill was in high school. He remembers feeling as though something had shot him straight into the sky. He landed on his feet, squatting, jolted and shaky. He did not fall. "I'll never forget that," McNeill says. It is dark outside and he is silhouetted, blond and ruddy, against the frosted window of the van. "I'll forget 'most every other jump, but I'll never forget that one." CAPTION: Picture 1, no caption, By David Houser/Uniphoto; Picture 2, Jim Denney: "A feel for the air." Copyright (c) , Dave G. Houser/Uniphoto