SOCHI, Russia — Will women jump farther than men someday?
It was a question none of the US women ski jumpers — Lindsey Van, Jessica Jerome, and Sarah Hendrickson — wanted to answer at a pre-competition press conference. A slightly awkward silence filled Tolstoy Hall, where the three Olympians sat in front of microphones. As her teammates looked in her direction, Van shook her head and said, “No.” More awkward silence mixed with a few nervous smiles.
On the surface, the question concerned physics. Smaller, lighter bodies tend to fly farther. (Poland’s Kamil Stoch, who won the men’s normal hill gold on Sunday, is 5 feet 8 inches, 121 pounds.) And female ski jumpers tend to be smaller and lighter than their male counterparts.
But the question was about so much more than that.
With women’s ski jumping making its Olympic debut in Sochi after a long, hard fight for inclusion, comparisons between male and female ski jumpers can easily veer into politically sensitive territory. Van has theorized that the small gap in the distances reached by men and women may have made officials reluctant to add women’s ski jumping to the Winter Games.
“They just didn’t know what to do with women in an extreme sport,” said Van before she arrived in Sochi. “If women are doing it, does it make it less extreme?
“I think ski jumping was just traditional and male-dominated and they didn’t want women coming to the party.”
Back in Tolstoy Hall, with that belief in the background, Jerome diplomatically answered the question.
“One of the biggest things we try to do as girl ski jumpers is separate ourselves from the men,” she said. “You’re not comparing Lindsey Vonn’s run to Bode Miller’s run. And we do not do the same in ski jump.
“We start from a higher gate. We have a little more speed going down the in-run. There are so many variables to take into account. You really can’t compare it.”
Plus, given their Olympic moment, Van, Jerome, and Hendrickson wanted the sport to take center stage. The trio hoped a history of gender bias and what Van called “ridiculous, comical” arguments against women’s ski jumping would not pull attention away from the historic competition that takes place Tuesday at the RusSki Gorki Jumping Center.
Still, they know women’s ski jumping cannot escape its struggles for acceptance.
Men’s ski jumping was contested as one of nine events at the first modern Winter Olympics in 1924, but that tradition did not help women. For more than a decade, women have pushed for a place on the Olympic program and met with resistance. It also stung that other extreme sports, ones popularized by the X Games, could not be embraced fast enough by the International Olympic Committee.
“We just wanted to be recognized as athletes who ski jump and not like some sort of freak show out there doing something that was so crazy and weird and told to go away,” said Van. “It wasn’t that we wanted the fan base or the exposure. We just wanted to be accepted.”
The face of the fight
In an impressive career that includes winning her sport’s first World Championship in 2009 and setting the North American women’s record with a 171-meter jump, Van, 29, has already jumped at the Olympics. At the 2002 Salt Lake City Games, she was a forerunner for the men’s competition, testing out the hills for Olympians.
“It was like, ‘You’re not good enough to be in the Olympics, but you’re good enough to test out the ski jump for the guys,’ ” said Van.
It was one of many times Van would be confronted with inequality in her sport and outdated notions about female athletes.
During an infamous 2005 interview, International Ski Federation president and IOC member Gian Franco Kasper said women’s ski jumping “seems not to be appropriate from a medical point of view.”
Van said she heard more blunt arguments against women’s ski jumping, including that “it would damage our reproductive systems” and that “our uteruses would fall out.”
In 2006, the IOC denied women’s ski jumping a spot at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics because it said the sport lacked “universality,” though at the time it had more participants from more nations than women’s bobsled, luge, and skeleton.
In 2008, Van and Jerome teamed up with 13 other female jumpers from five countries and sued the Vancouver Organizing Committee for the right to compete in the 2010 Winter Games.
Van became the most familiar face of the fight.
“I guess I just kind of stuck my head out there when I felt like I had nothing to lose anymore,” said Van. “Everybody else was just pushing everybody else to get out in front of it. Eventually somebody has got to actually do something and step up and say something. I was sick of sitting around waiting.”
While the British Columbia Supreme Court said the IOC showed gender discrimination by keeping women’s ski jumping out of the Olympics, it could not force the IOC to add the event to the Vancouver Games. The strain of the court battle and disappointment with the outcome in Canada left Van at a crossroads. Ranked No. 1 in the world, she briefly quit ski jumping in 2010.
“When you’re trying to be an athlete and you’re talking about what you don’t have all the time, it takes a toll,” said Van. “You can’t really focus on your training.
“I’d rather, ‘Show me, don’t tell me.’ But I could never show people. It was just talk, talk, talk, talk, talk . . .
“It wasn’t fun anymore. Talking about something you don’t have is not fun.”
But the fight continued until April 6, 2011, when the IOC announced that women’s ski jumping would be included at the Sochi Olympics. By then, a rejuvenated Van had returned to training.
“When I first heard, it was more relief than anything,” said Van. “It was a relief that we could be normal athletes like everybody else and focus on our sport and not the political atmosphere where we had been fighting to get our sport to the Olympic level.
“Then it probably took a good year before it even seemed real. It’s hard to hear ‘no’ forever, then all of a sudden one day it’s ‘yes.’ ”
Rush of adrenaline
When Jerome, 27, told her parents she wanted to compete in ski jumping, they said, “No way.” Her father Peter had a vision of the “agony of defeat” lowlight from “ABC’s Wide World of Sports” opening sequence, when a competitor crashes off a ski jump. But it wasn’t long before he bought a “Non-Profits for Dummies” book and helped create the organizational structure, now Women’s Ski Jumping USA, that would help his daughter reach the Olympics.
“My parents believe that everyone should have a chance to succeed at whatever they want to do,” said Jerome. “I’m just hoping that with the Olympics we can show that Americans are interested in ski jumping, that there is opportunity there for sponsors, and that people want to watch it on television.”
But the reason Van, Jerome, and Hendrickson compete in the sport is that they all love the sensation of flying off a jump, getting an adrenaline rush they cannot replicate anywhere else.
“My favorite part of jumping is when I do it right,” said Jerome. “When I have that good jump, you can sort of float. That’s definitely the most enjoyable part of what I do.”
And that sensation keeps Jerome and her teammates coming back to jumping hills around the world, pushing through legal battles, financial obstacles, and injuries.
Hendrickson, 19, the reigning world champion, was too young to be on the front lines of the fight for equality in ski jumping. But her road to Sochi hasn’t been easy. At an August event in Oberstdorf, Germany, Hendrickson tore her ACL, ripped her MCL off the bone, and damaged 80 percent of the meniscus in her right knee. She underwent surgery in the US eight days later. Then, after countless hours of physical therapy crammed into a hyper-speed recovery, she was back jumping on snow Jan. 11.
On Saturday, she struggled in training jumps, passing on the first round, then finishing 27th out of 29 competitors in Round 2 and 23d of 25 in Round 3. In her third-round jump, Van placed seventh. Jerome had her best performance in the second round, ranking eighth.
“Having this injury has relieved a lot of the pressure from me because I’m kind of the underdog now,” said Hendrickson. “Where I was reigning world champion, now people have no idea what to expect.
“I don’t want to say that is an excuse. But for me, my goal was to make it to Sochi. And I’ve already accomplished that. So I’m going to go into the competition just excited to be here.”
Hendrickson will be far from alone in her excitement to simply compete at the Olympics. Undoubtedly, Tuesday night under the lights will be emotional for many competitors, especially her veteran teammates. But before they can truly revel in the historic moment, they must show the world the best of women’s ski jumping.
“As far as being here and making history, it’s hard for me to think about that right now,” said Van. “I’m focused on being an athlete.”
And that is exactly what she fought for all these years.