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LIBEREC, Czech Republic—The mood among the women ski jumpers was mixed between excitement and pressure. Here they had to prove that women’s ski jumping belonged among the most revered competitions in skiing—the World Championships. Not only that, but that they belong to one of the most traditional winter sports of the ages—nordic ski jumping. The days leading up to the main event were strained with poor weather conditions, and the added element of a notorious hill known to be low-flying and laden with tailwind, both contributing to difficult “flying” conditions. If the women could prove they belonged here, then they could belong anywhere, particularly in the Winter Olympic Games, they claimed.
But then the officials, as predicted by the athletes, played it safer than exciting and lowered the start bar on the day of the competition, and thus, lowered the amount of speed for the women. In this technical sport, less about power than form, women only need more speed to compete alongside the men. “They don’t want us to jump farther than the men,” says U.S. Ski Teamer Jessica Jerome in frustration.
And in the beginning round that Friday morning, it looked as though they would lose the fight as many of the women began jumping short in the fog, tailwind, and snowy conditions. Until American Lindsey Van, with pure guts, let loose the longest jump of the day—a 97.5 meter leap out of nowhere. With fogged lenses, she could only see her ski tops. Going 88 kmh, she was committed. “I couldn’t see past my ski tips, so when I felt the pressure of the inrun, I knew I had to jump and go on feel,” she says. Currently ranked No. 2 in the world, she proved that when adversity strikes, a true athlete could find the Zen of mental capability and go on instinct. Within a few seconds, she found the strength and willed herself to jump and jump far.
When she landed, the crowd was both stunned and amazed. Van leapt in the air waving her arms. She knew this was a podium jump, but two of her top competitors were still left to go. No. 1 ranked Norway’s Anette Sagen, and Van’s best friend but rivaled enemy, jumped solid but short of Van’s benchmark. Then Germany’s Ulrike Graessler did the same. The American had the win—an American. In a sport most known in Europe, for an American to win it was a historic feat for the first women’s World Championship bid.
“I’m so happy for you,” Sagen tells Van after the jump. She is the most famous female athlete in Norway, but she knew Van, an 18-year veteran of the sport and pioneer in many respects, deserved the win. The women deserved to have an advocate of the sport like Van to win. She is a plaintiff in the lawsuit against the Vancouver Olympic Organizing Committee—so is Sagen and Graessler for that matter—to take legal action to prove that women’s ski jumping be included in the 2010 Games. Proving themselves on the hill has only gone so far, even now it’s hard to say what VANOC or the International Olympic Committee will say.
“I don’t think we are too few or too few nations,” Sagen says. “We need to get the sport moving forward. We have to start somewhere and we are starting here today with the world championships. Despite the difficult conditions we did very well—all of us.”
In that moment, there was hope that this sport is at the level and has the athletes determined to make it grow. Van, is now the only American ski jumper (male or female) to win a World Championships gold medal. If that doesn’t tell the world this sport is ready, then what will?