UTAH OLYMPIC PARK — Matt Dayton was 18 when he stood with a group of 8-year-olds atop the 30-meter jump hill in Steamboat Springs, Colo.

No, he wasn't their jump instructor. Dayton was just like the little kids — a first-timer on the training hill looking for the courage to make his virgin jump.

He let the youngsters go first.

Dayton landed that first jump with every bone in place. But the Steamboat folks would have likely summoned a medic if Dayton had told them he'd be competing in the Olympics in a few years against some of the world's best nordic combiners. Ski jumping is half of nordic combined, and the sport's elite typically take their first jumps soon after potty training — not high school graduation.

But Dayton, now 24, is a jumping freak. Despite his late, late start on the jump hill, Dayton has quickly become one of the key cogs of the U.S. nordic combined team. His zippy ascension to Team USA has surprised almost everyone, including himself.

"The dream of making an Olympic team was there; making it a reality was something else," said Dayton, recalling the brief years he's spent learning the sport.

His teammates and coaches are amazed at his development. The team's head athletic coach, Jan-Erik Aalbu — who has spent much of his career coaching Norway's best in his native country — says he has never seen anyone learn the sport as quickly as Dayton. And Team USA's alpha dog, Todd Lodwick, marvels at his teammate's potential.

"Matt didn't know five years ago that he had jumping talent; in another two years he'll be unbelievable," Lodwick said.

Dayton may have come late to jumping, but he literally grew up skiing cross country — the second element of nordic combined. His parents, Gene and Therese Dayton, operate a trio of nordic skiing centers near his hometown of Breckenridge, Colo., and young Matt was on cross country skis when he was 18 months old.

His upbringing on Colorado's high-altitude cross country courses has paid off. While Dayton has typically been a middle-of-the-pack jumper during the current World Cup season, he's capable of posting cross country times near the top of the field.

He's had two top-six finishes in a pair of recent World Cup events in Steamboat Springs and finished 18th Sunday in the Olympic nordic combined individual competition after placing a distant 32nd in the jumping segment. His cross country time of 38 minutes and 22 seconds in the 15-kilometer race, the day's seventh fastest time, propelled him past several other skiers.