Winter Olympics: The flying milkman and the millionaires

Andrew Longmore talks to the daredevil of the air waves who aims to be big in Japan
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The Independent Online
THE British ski team's handbook lists all you need to know about Kevin Harbut. He is 26, six feet tall, weighs 13 stone, was born and lives in Southampton, skis for the Southampton Skistylers and has no personal sponsor "at present". It misses out the one essential fact that marks Harbut out from the rest of the team. He is the son of a milkman, has been known to work weekends delivering pints himself and is therefore resolutely nicknamed "Milky" by the team and forever condemned to have his successes - and there are a few - prefaced by the sobriquet, "the flying milkman".

Harbut is a member of the Olympic aerial team, an aeriallist, which means, in the absence of any lottery money or other tangible financial reward, he actually enjoys launching himself into the air at a speed of 40mph, an angle of 70 degrees, to a height of 50 feet and performing an impossible set of twists and turns before landing on cutdown skis without a hair out of place on a 40-degree landing slope. "You've got to know what you're doing," he says without a hint of understatement. "You can't go half-heartedly no matter how small the jump."

So what makes a good aeriallist then? "Someone with a good mind, with a bit of gung-ho daredevil in them and a lot of confidence. You've got to have good body tension and good air sense." Harbut came to aerialling through gymnastics. His mother was a gymnastics coach, his sister was a gymnast and Harbut himself came to the gym before he discovered skiing on a trip from school. "Skiing is still a major part of the sport," he says. "You need balance and control skiing off the ramp." Stamina too.

Given that he had just travelled for 36 hours from San Francisco to Nagano, a journey which would have taken a lot longer had not the British Olympic Association wisely transferred their athletes from the coach to the bullet train, Harbut seemed remarkably chipper at the team reception organised by the BOA. Though qualifying for the aerial discipline does not begin for another week, the thrill of fulfilment had been awakened by a simple sign in Tokyo airport pointing the way through a special customs post for Olympic competitors. Everyone is equal at the airport. But Harbut has done well to reach the sign, after a bad knee injury put him out of the sport for a whole season. At the time, he was just beginning to make a mark on the World Cup tour, jumping to sixth place in a night-time event at Altenmarkt in Austria and recording eight top 20 World Cup placings.

Like gymnastics or diving, aeriallists nominate a degree of difficulty for their jumps. Four twists and three somersaults marks out the champions and Harbut was just graduating to those heights when his knee went. He still wears a brace. His mind needed one too for a time. "I had another problem a few weeks ago and I really thought I'd be back down the dairy, so I'm happy to be here." In Nagano, he will attempt a double and a triple in the hope that the favourites mess up their more complicated routines. To qualify for the final he has to finish in the top 12.

"On paper it doesn't look good because I only started jumping again in November," he says. "But I've got nothing to lose, so I can just go for it. When I got out of my hospital bed, I spent eight months in the gym and then there were the first jumps which were painful. This is the highlight, this is why I spent so much of my time getting fit again."

Harbut's success is important in persuading the treasurers of English sport that not all our top-class skiers are born with a silver spoon. "I come from a normal background, live in a normal house with a normal family," he laughs. Normality will be suspended, presumably, when the Milky Bar Kid takes to the air over Nagano next week.