You may be counting the days until the flowers bloom again and the smell of spring fills the air, but a select few are thinking much further ahead. We’re halfway to the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, and the games are already heating up. The athletes are training. The coaches are strategizing. And for women ski jumpers, the uphill battle to fly down the biggest of hills has finally gone their way.
“It’s been so many years and such a long, incredible journey to get women’s ski jumping into the Olympic games,” says Deedee Corradini, president of Women’s Ski Jumping USA. “We’re ready.”
A long journey, indeed; while men’s ski jumping is an original Winter Olympics event, women have never been able to leap for gold. In fact, until this past April when the International Olympic Committee (IOC) announced the inclusion of a women’s event in the 2014 Games, ski jumping was the last Winter Olympic sport women couldn’t compete in.
“They [the IOC] kept finding reasons to not include us, but we never gave up,” says Lindsey Van, the 2009 women’s world champion.
Now they’ll leap at the chance to show off their incredible skills across the globe. People from Louisville to Ljubljana will be able to admire the technical skill and artistry of these women as they ski down a ramp at fifty-five to sixty mph, timing their takeoff at the base, trying to land as far as possible down the hill with grace and aplomb. All in the hope of earning the maximum number of points based upon distance and style.
At its very core, ski jumping is about flying through the air with what appears to be the greatest of ease.
“You know the feeling when you stick your hand out the car window at sixty miles per hours and it feels like you’re playing with the wind?” says Van. “Ski jumping is like that with your whole body.”
The twenty-seven-year-old Van moved to Park City, Utah, when she was four, and almost immediately started ski racing. Sort of. “I like skiing, but the problem was, I kept trying to find the jumps and skip the gates,” she says. “I just wanted to jump.” By the age of seven, she had gone down her first twenty-meter hill, and the rest is ski-jumping history.
“People ask me if it’s scary to fall so far,” says Van. “That’s the thing—it doesn’t feel like you’re falling at all. It truly feels like you’re flying.”
As it turns out, Van’s aggression on the hills translated to the Olympic ski-jumping battle as well. She tried to plead her sport’s cause to the IOC, but to no avail. She was a principal in a lawsuit to include ski jumping in the 2010 Games in Vancouver, but the Canadian Supreme Court refused to hear the case. Yet every step of the way, and regardless of the roadblocks, her outspokenness and fearless attitude has made her one of the sport’s most popular and important athletes.
“Lindsey is incredibly courageous,” says Corradini. “To put herself out there against the world took the kind of strength not many people could handle.”
The greatest irony of not including women in the 2010 Vancouver Games? Before the Games began, the record holder for ski jumping on Whistler Mountain—men or women—was none other than Lindsey Van.
“Regardless of the IOC’s reasoning for not including us, we won, we celebrated, and we’ve moved on,” says Corradini. “Now, finally, our team is focusing on what really matters: the sport.”
And while it may have taken the IOC years to notice, they’re certainly not wrong about one thing: There is a level of depth now that makes the sport ultracompetitive across the globe. Some of the names to watch for as we look toward Sochi:
*Jessica Jerome (USA):
Eight-time national champion. “She has incredible talent and determination,” says Van. “She really loves this sport from her heart.”
*Sarah Hendrickson (USA):
Only seventeen, her best days are clearly ahead of her. “She’s a future star,” says Corradini.
Daniela Iraschko (AUS):
“She does everything pretty damn good these days,” says Van.
Annette Sagen: (NOR):
The current No. 1 ski jumper in the world.
Competitiveness aside, Van says there’s a very unique dynamic among the jumpers. “All of us have know each other for ten, fifteen years. And while we all want to win, we’ve been through so much together. There’s a really unique bond we share.”
And so, after years of politicking, lobbying, and lawsuits, the struggle is over. In fact, the Visa Women’s Ski Jumping Team triumph to be included in the Olympics was so impressive, the Women’s Sports Foundation awarded them the prestigious Wilma Rudolph Courage Award in October. And when the first woman soars through the Russian sky in 2014, the world will be witnessing equality in flight.
“I’ve tried to picture myself standing by the side of the mountain watching them compete in Sochi,” says Corradini. “I can’t even fathom what will be going through my mind. Honestly, I’m crying thinking about it.”
Van: “There’s so much work still to do. So much training and preparation. I’m not thinking that far ahead. I can’t.”
Note to the world: Get ready for 2014. The fly girls are coming.
Lane Strauss is a freelance writer based in Cleveland. He has written for ESPN The Magazine, Cleveland Magazine, and Ohio Magazine. His new book, Extra Innings, can be found at amazon.com.