Women’s ski jumping makes Olympic debut

At the Sochi Olympics, women will make their debut in the ski jump competition. Getting there has been a challenge. (Lee Powell/The Washington Post)

In a field of 30, Lindsey Van finished 15th. But her victory was assured the moment the first woman tucked into a crouch, hurtled down the icy run at the RusSki Gorki Ski Jumping Center, arms at her sides, and launched herself into Tuesday’s cool, night air.

With that, women’s ski jumping took a historic place in the Olympic Winter Games, its seat at the table not courtesy of an engraved invitation from the International Olympic Committee but the result of years of lobbying and a lawsuit by female athletes who demanded the chance to compete.

“We have arrived,” said Jessica Jerome, 27, of Park City, Utah, whose 10th-place finish was best among Americans, when asked what statement the athletes had made in their Olympic debut. “We’re hard-working, and we’re dedicated and we are good at what we do.”

Germany’s Carina Vogt won gold, on jumps of 103 and 97.5 meters. Daniela Iraschko-Stolz of Austria, a gay-rights advocate who married her partner last year, made an additional statement with a silver medal performance — one she had been yearning to make during these politically fraught Winter Games.

“I think I did my best at the ski jumping,” Iraschko-Stolz said. “I’m married to a woman. It’s a good statement, especially in Russia, to show that people can live together.”

Taking bronze was Coline Mattel of France, who relegated the overwhelming gold medal favorite, Sara Takanashi, 17, of Japan to fourth.

The comments of Iraschko-Stolz, the first medalist at the 2014 Sochi Games to discuss being gay in the wake of her achievements, were notable given Russia’s controversial law banning the promotion of “non-traditional relations” to minors. She had said before the Games that she felt concern about the law’s potential impact on athletes had been overblown. And her comments to reporters minutes after Tuesday’s competition were met with no official rebuke or reaction from Sochi organizers or Russian officials.

While men’s ski jumping boasts a storied place in the Winter Olympics, among the eight original sports contested at the inaugural event in 1924, women’s efforts to join the competition had been refused for myriad reasons — among them, a medically unfounded belief, shared by a former president of the International Skiing Federation, that the cumulative effect of landing ski jumps would damage women’s reproductive organs.

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Keys to the skis

Van, 29, was the public face and driving force behind the fight to change that thinking. In a push to compete at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, she was joined by Jerome and 13 other female ski jumpers from around the world in filing suit against the Games’ organizers, claiming that they were being discriminated against because of their gender.

The Canadian judge agreed with their claim but stopped short of forcing the change. It took another two years for skiing’s international governing body and the IOC to relent.

The 30 female ski jumpers who qualified for Sochi represented 12 countries. Half were teenagers, including the 2013 world champion, Sarah Hendrickson, 19, of Park City, Utah, a protege of Van’s. Hendrickson hadn’t competed since undergoing knee surgery following a crash in August. With no World Cup points, she had the ignoble distinction of jumping first, with the starting-order following world standings in inverse order.

The 7,500-seat venue was packed with screaming supporters — parents, siblings, friends and fellow racers who had backed the female jumpers for years. Hendrickson’s mother and father were among them, as were Jerome’s parents.

“No one handed this to them,” said Peter Jerome, who started a non-profit foundation that funded much of the U.S. women’s training and expenses for more than a decade. “Just being good at what they did, did not get them here tonight. They had to show just an incredible amount of stick-to-it-iveness back in the day, when there was no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. They were jumping as much as they could because they loved the sport.”

Ski jumping is a breathtaking sport — almost dreamlike in the way the athletes take flight, their skis in a V-shape as their arms lift away from their bodies to extend their surface-area against the wind, like human kites. And watching from just beyond the finish area Tuesday, it was impossible to pinpoint anything about the takeoff, flight or landing that suggested one gender or the other was better suited to it.

If man could masquerade as an eagle for 10 seconds’ time, why not a woman?

One by one, the women jumped from the so-called “normal hill” — the smaller of the two hills and, for now, the only one they’re allowed to tackle in the Olympics.

As with the men, the women get two jumps. Each is scored on distance and style, with slight deductions or additions to mitigate the wind’s effect.

As the women waited in turn at the top of the hill — the Americans, Canadians, Russians, Germans and Austrians who have competed against one another for years — they traded grins, smiles and all-out laughs that the moment had finally come.

“There is a special camaraderie that all of us girls have, from all the countries,” Jerome said. “I really felt it tonight. We were up there high-fiving with the Norwegians and Finns and Canadian girls. Everybody was really glad to be sharing this with not only their competitors, but their friends — someone who gets what we’ve been trying to do.”

Hendrickson’s knee held up under the strain of one practice jump and two in competition, though she felt discomfort, as she had during training earlier in the week.

Given her limitations just six months removed from reconstructive surgery, she had no expectation of winning a medal. She simply wanted to be part of the Sochi Games. In that light, her 21st place finish was a victory.

Van felt the same. At 29, her best chance at an Olympic medal had come and gone with Vancouver, four years earlier. But after finishing 15th, Van said she had never felt better, or more relieved.

“We can call ourselves Olympians now,” Van said. “I couldn’t do that yesterday.”

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