Book Review: Jumper: Flying in the Heartland by Cooper Dodds

Jumper is a poignant, transcendent story in an unassuming setting. Athletes train and aspire to the level of olympic champions. They work…

© Cooper Dodds

Jumper is a poignant, transcendent story in an unassuming setting. Athletes train and aspire to the level of olympic champions. They work for years outside the limelight to hone their craft, strap on skis, helmets, and aerodynamic suits to hurl themselves down a ramp at speeds up to 65 mph and jump as far as humanly possible across the sky, attain flight over the Midwestern landscape, and safely land hundreds of yards downhill. The Midwest is the birthplace of American ski jumping — ski jumps in states like Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin and Minnesota give rise to champions who compete on the global stage. In his photographs, Cooper Dodds, a former ski jumper himself, captures vignettes of these aspiring champions and the places where their dreams are crafted in his heartfelt, honest visual narrative of the sport.

Many people have been re-discovering old favorites lately — TV shows from their youth, movies from their halcyon days. The 1979 film Breaking Away is one of my all-time favorites. It’s the story of a young man coming of age in Bloomington, Indiana — home to Indiana University. The main character, Dave, is a local kid who wants to be on a team of champion Italian cyclists; high-performance athletes, winners — ultimately, greater than his humble upbringing. Dave and his four friends just graduated high school, and they mess around for one final summer — hanging out, wasting time, swimming in the abandoned quarries where their fathers had worked — before facing their life-defining choices after high school. Dave decides to emulate his cycling heroes. He dreams of being on the elite racing team, and by proxy he dreams of being Italian. He apes Italian phrases, sings Italian opera, eats Italian food, and re-names the dog ‘Fellini’. Dave exhibits full machismo and even dares to race a semi-truck on his bicycle at highway speeds. He ultimately has the chance to prove himself in the film in a climactic sporting event. Like all great sports movies, that event is not about itself, but about what’s at stake for the competitors.

Dodds captures scenes of jumpers in flight: their form silhouetted against sky and snow, as well as training on the ground. Dodds captures the hyper-focused look of concentration of a jumper preparing to jump. The unpretentious bar or tavern with warm glowing neon lights in the cold night, complete with the ephemera of the sport found either in large photographs adorning the walls, or the naively painted ski jump landscape above a urinal. We see athletes posed for portraits in their high-tech gear, holding their skis which tower over their heads, a Midwestern field and tree line (or mobile trailer) as a backdrop. Some skiers proudly display bruises and signs of the physicality and inherent danger of the sport. These athletes who hurl themselves across the sky are resilient, but not invincible. The athletes we see in Jumper want to feel the exhilarating rush, strive to push their limits, fly through icy crosswinds toward their landing zone. Launch, fly, land, repeat. The abandoned quarries where the friends in Breaking Away go to escape and swim set a similar stage: they flirt with danger, push limits and suggest the constant possibility of sudden tragedy. We wait for a terrible accident to happen, but none does, but the looming chance makes all of these characters seem curiously vulnerable, and their lives more precious.

Ski jumping is described by Peter Geye, a contributor to the book, as something devout and as close to a religion as he will ever know. Dodds, Geye, and fellow contributor Chris Lamb (a former USA Ski Jumping team member) all make impassioned comments on the subject of ski jumping, and an analogy to it as a type of faith. The three men tell a thoughtful story as insiders to the sport. They note it’s intersection with the crossroads of their youth, and the way it shaped them. Dodds’ insightful images, and their words, give us a look into the high-performance world of these athletes, their dreams, and their years of hard work. Hubris displayed, vulnerability revealed, endeavoring together — enlightenment achieved.

© Cooper Dodds
© Cooper Dodds
© Cooper Dodds
© Cooper Dodds
© Cooper Dodds
© Cooper Dodds
© Cooper Dodds
© Cooper Dodds
© Cooper Dodds

Jumper: Flying in the Heartland
Photographs by Cooper Dodds
Contributions by Peter Geye and Chris Lamb
ISBN-13: 9781942084761
122 pages; 45 Color Photographs
10 1/2 x 10 1/2 inches
Published by Daylight Books

Originally published at F-Stop Magazine.