Kevin Bickner poses for a portrait at the Team USA Media Summit on Sept. 26, 2017 in Park City, Utah.
When ski jumper Kevin Bickner was a first-grader in the Chicago suburb of Wauconda, Illinois, his mother, Maureen Bickner, got an urgent call from the school. Her son was waiting to be picked up from the principal’s office.
Initially confused why her usually obedient son had misbehaved, his mother was both shocked and yet unsurprised when she found out he had somehow climbed all the way to the top of the school flagpole.
When she scolded him and asked why he would do something so dangerous and reckless, he innocently responded: “I don’t get it! It’s not against one of the rules!”
His mother knew Bickner was going to be a handful since the day he learned to walk, and shortly thereafter run and jump – the latter proving to be his preferred mode of traveling.
Last March, Bickner, now 21, set a new U.S. record (244.5 meters) on the ski flying hill in Vikersund, Norway. This February, he could compete at his first Olympic Winter Games.
He finished second at the U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Nordic Combined & Ski Jumping, held on New Year’s Eve. The top finisher there – Michael Glasder – automatically qualified for the 2018 U.S. Olympic Team, while up to three more men’s ski jumpers will be named to the team later this month based on world cup results and coaches’ discretion.
Bickner set his sights on the Olympic Games at age 9, after his first day of ski jumping. His mom was simply grateful to have a constructive outlet for her son’s thrill-seeking energy.
“If you just walked you couldn’t keep up with him because he was always running and jumping,” his mother said. “I remember as young as 3 years old, he was constantly climbing on things and jumping on this and that and it was almost more worrisome [than ski jumping]. It was good to get him into a sport where he could have that adrenaline rush in a controlled way.”
The entire Bickner family – Maureen, Bickner’s dad Tom, Kevin, and his sisters Brandalyn and Kailey – had been skiing recreationally for years.
One day in 2005, Bridget Duzey, a neighbor and close friend of the family, heard about a ski-jumping competition taking place about 30 minutes away, at Norge Ski Club in Fox River Grove, Illinois. Duzey called the Bickners to see if they’d like to go check it out.
It was a busy day in the Bickner household. Bickner’s mom figured she ought to decline the offer. After mentioning it to her husband, she changed her mind and they drove out to Norge for the first of many times.
Within a few months, Bickner was officially signed up. His first coach at Norge was Oleg Glyvka, a Ukrainian coach who saw potential in Bickner and worked him twice as hard in order to foster it.
At 9 years old, Bickner was considered late to the game compared to his peers who started at 5 or 6 years old. Glyvka was adamant that Bickner catch up to his age group – and then some.
Because he started in the summer, Bickner’s first jump had to be on a plastic hill. The smallest plastic practice hill at Norge was 20 meters – three times the size of the typical 5-meter beginner’s jump.
Nevertheless, Bickner took a deep breath and took off down the 20-meter ramp. He touched down on the plastic bristles at the bottom of the hill and crashed hard. And then crashed again. And then again.
“You don’t have to keep doing this,” his mother told him. “You can quit if you want to.”
Bickner smiled and turned to climb the stairs beside the hill for the fourth time. He took off down the ramp and landed the jump. And the next one. And the next one.
“It’s insane,” Bickner said. “You hit a point where you stop falling, you hit the wind just right and you go from a falling feeling to actually flying. It’s incredible.”
Needless to say, he was hooked.
Before that year was over, he looked up at his mother with a straight face and said: “Well, I guess it won’t be ski racing that I go to the Olympics for. It’ll be ski jumping.”
Said his mother: “He was so matter-of-fact about it. When your kids are little you think, ‘Oh, well, it’s good to have dreams.’”
Glyvka had him doing 10 jumps per practice as opposed to the standard six. Just after turning 11 years old, Bickner tackled the highest jump at Norge – the 70-meter hill.
By the time he was 13 years old, Bickner’s mother knew his prediction held more truth than anyone originally thought.
There were some tough decisions to be made. Having made the national developmental team at 16 years old, Bickner was spending more time at the Utah Olympic Park, a U.S. Olympic Training Site in Park City, and less time with his family and at school.
During his sophomore year, he was offered a full scholarship through the United States Olympic Committee’s partnership with DeVry University. The only requirement standing in the way of a free college education and the flexibility to pursue his dream full-time was a high school diploma.
A General Education Diploma (GED) seemed like his best bet.
“I had to go to court for him to get it in Illinois,” his mother said. “I’m a math teacher, so education’s obviously very important to me. A lot of people were saying, ‘Why are you doing this?’ But I wasn’t doing it so he could quit school; he was just starting college early.”
After his sophomore year, GED in hand, Bickner moved with his family to Park City and began online classes with DeVry. He wasn’t in Utah long before he began splitting his time between there and Europe, where he currently spends at least eight months out of the year.
Based in Slovenia, he and the rest of the USA Nordic ski jumping team bounce around Europe and Asia, competing in various world cups and Continental Cups. Thousands of diehard fans come to every competition in countries such as Poland and Slovenia, quite different from the smaller crowds in America.
“For Poland, one of the best ski jumping countries in the world, this is the sport above all sports,” his mother said. “When he’s there, people are always asking for his autograph and he gets a lot of mail from Polish girls and Slovenian girls – I’d say a couple a day. They’ll ask for a card or one of his bibs that he wore and they’ll send him chocolate or they draw things.”
His mother often thinks about how one small change of heart to visit Norge with her neighbor completely changed the trajectory of their lives. She now teaches at the Winter Sports School in Park City and Bickner’s little sister, Kailey, is pursuing her own career in ski jumping.
As for Bickner, he continues to prepare for the Games and looks forward to bringing his sport recognition, which, in his eyes, would make that long wait in the principal’s office in Wauconda all worth it.
Cat Hendrick is a student in the sports media program at the University of Georgia’s Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication. She will be part of TeamUSA.org’s coverage team for the PyeongChang Games.