The Guide

The Winter Olympics at just 17

Courchevel Olympian Jonty takes a break from his studies to talk to Gavin Fernie-Jones about competing at the highest level.

My first telephone conversation with Jonathan Learoyd, or Jonty to his friends, was cut short due to the fact that he was in the middle of a doping test. A process I hadn’t pictured a 17 year old going through, but then again Jonty isn’t your average teenager. He’s competed at both the winter Olympics and World Cup in ski jumping. When we did get back on the line what quickly dawned on me is that I’ve never spoken to anyone so driven or focused.

Jonty was born in Albertville and has spent his life in Courchevel. From a young age he excelled at sports and soon joined the Courchevel Club des Sports, a select club with the aim of training athletes. At the age of five he started alpine skiing but soon found a love for ski jumping. In Courchevel we’re blessed with Olympic ski jumping facilities covered in an artificial surface so you can jump throughout the summer. He soon stood out, spurred on by his competitive nature and the fact that he loves the feeling of the wind under his skis and body. “You actually feel like you’re flying,” reveals Jonty. “Well, for five seconds you actually are!”

Taking the plunge

If you’ve ever watched ski jumping on TV or spotted the imposing ski jumps in Le Praz, you’ve probably asked yourself:

“How do you start jumping?”

As Jonty answers the question this is where he sounds his most focused: “I started jumping when I was six, and at that age you just do as your trainer tells you, I started on the 60m jump, as there wasn’t a 25m jump in Courchevel at the time.” A ski jump size is calculated from the technical data of a hill and is based on radius, angle of inclination and record distance.

“I continued jumping throughout the summers and came to the point where I had to make the decision to commit to ski jumping. It was a difficult decision as there is not a whole lot of structure, schooling takes a back seat.”

He is currently taking an extra year to complete the equivalent of his A-levels.

“There is a lot of travelling and you train incredibly hard. I’ve had great support along the way from my parents, but you’ve really gotta want it. The drive has to come from the athlete, and I want to be one of the world’s best.”

So now you’re committed, what does your training schedule look like?

“I’m at school most mornings and jumping in the afternoons. I stretch every day and have specialist leg sessions in the gym. We don’t work on arms as we don’t want to carry any extra weight.”

So when you’re doing all these jumping sessions what are you focusing on?

“The coach is always watching and I’m constantly improving through repetition. I do ground-based training where I’m carried around by my coaches, it’s just like Dirty Dancing.”

Very few reach the highest competitive level in their chosen sport but to do that at 17 is incredible, how did that come about?

“I found out that I was going to the Olympics just three weeks before. I’d been competing on the world cup circuit at the Four Hills events, which consists of two jumps in Germany and two in Austria and had finished in the top 30. That meant I had enough points for the Olympics. It was a crazy time as it had never been an objective for the season and it was a bit of a shock.”

Suddenly you’re at the Olympics, competing with your idols, that must have been 10 days of emotion?

“The flag carrying ceremony was the first time it really hit home. It was a very surreal moment, I just couldn’t believe I was there. It was unusual because I was part of a big French team, normally it’s just us ski jumpers at ski jumping competitions.”

How did the competition go?

“It was tough. I didn’t have my normal coach with me as I’m in the French B Team and here I was with the A Team. It was very windy with wind chill temperatures as low as -27, so we had a lot of downtime in the Olympic Village and didn’t risk going outside too much in case we got ill. The actual competition was quite long due to the winds and when you were stood at the top of the jump that’s all you could hear, just the wind howling. I came 27th on the small hill but felt quite tired when it came to the big hill competition.”

I can hear regret in Jonty’s voice but surely attending the Olympics at 17 is praise enough? Not for Jonty. He is so driven to compete alongside his idols that I can’t help thinking they must already be looking over their shoulders at the focused young man who is hot on their heels.

What do you have in your sights for this winter?

“If I prepare correctly I should get into the top 30 at the World Cup and score points, but there is no real pressure this winter.”

Anything else?

“Oh yeah, I’d like to jump on a ski flying jump, I can’t at the moment as I’m only 17 and you have to be 18 to use the jumps.”

Ski flying is derived from ski jumping. They are practically the same sport, with the rules and scoring the same. But the hills (of which there are only five remaining, all in Europe) are constructed to a different standard in order to enable jumps of up to 66% longer in distance. There is a strong emphasis on aerodynamics and harnessing the wind, as well as an increased element of danger due to athletes flying much higher and faster than in ski jumping. The current ski flying record stands at 253.5m. To date, Jonty’s longest jump is 140m.

It won’t be long before he’ll achieve this aim and be relishing flying through the air with the wind under his body and his skis, no doubt for longer than his usual five seconds. I’m in no doubt that he’ll approach ski flying with the same training, preparation, drive and focus that he’s already applied to his goals.

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