Women ski jumpers ready for their Olympic debut

After leading the fight for women's ski jumping to be included in the Olympics, Lindsey Van is about to get her shot.

Harry How/Getty Images

Sometime in the next month, Lindsey Van will likely take to the ski jumping facility at Rosa Khutor, launch herself down the 90-meter hill and soar through the Caucasus sky, landing with a feathery touch.

And, it’s fair to assume, her uterus will remain safely inside her body cavity.

“It seems so ridiculous that would even be said,” said Van, as she recalled only the most insane of the many excuses she was given over the years for why her sport could not be included in the Winter Olympics program: The possibility that her reproductive organs might literally fall out of her. “It’s kind of embarrassing. … I laughed (when it was said). It was so ridiculous. It was comical."

Van can laugh now, now that her decade-long fight for equality is over and women’s ski jumping is just a few weeks away from making its Olympic debut in Sochi.

At times, however, the battle brought her to tears.

Her frustration flared in 2002, when a 17-year-old Van was deemed good enough to test the jumping conditions in Park City as a forejumper, but not good enough to actually compete in her hometown Games. The issue resurfaced in 2006, when the U.S. women’s team huddled in a hotel following an event in Germany and watched the Opening Ceremonies for the Torino Games, not knowing whether they’d ever have the opportunity to be anything other than a spectator for that event.  And the drama peaked in 2009, a breakthrough season that saw Van both win the inaugural World Championships in the Czech Republic and set a record (for both men and women) at the very hill that would host the 2010 Olympics, only to have her lawsuit seeking inclusion at the Vancouver Games denied by the Supreme Court of British Columbia.

As she stood outside the courthouse, wiping the tears from her eyes, she faced the growing reality that her Olympic dream was over. 

“I didn’t really think it actually would (happen),” Van said. “I was pretty convinced it wouldn’t. I convinced myself it wasn’t going to happen in my lifetime.”

Van walked away from the sport for a brief time, unwilling any longer to assume the often uncomfortable mantle of leadership in an increasingly futile fight. But long before the International Olympic Committee finally relented in 2011, the love of the sport brought her back.

For Van and the other women who gravitated to ski jumping in the 1990s, it was that love that sustained them when the sport had seemingly little else to offer them.

“It was the love of the sport (that kept us going),” said Jessica Jerome, who last month became the first American woman to earn a spot on the Olympic team. “Clearly, we’re not doing it for the money. There’s not a lot to gain other than just personal satisfaction. We love doing it. You can have bad jumps for a week. You can have a hundred bad jumps or a thousand bad jumps and you’re this close to quitting. But you have one good jump, it’s effortless and awesome and you want to do it again and again and again.”

It was Jerome’s father, Peter, who, armed with a copy of “Non-Profits for Dummies,” helped establish Women’s Ski Jumping USA back in 2003 to help fund the team’s travel and training. Even as the team has earned Olympic status, much of its funding still continues to come through the non-profit.

But as is the case for so many Olympians, the cost of competition far outweighs the support they receive.  To help make ends meet, James waitresses at a Park City restaurant and, until only recently, continued to live with her mother.  

“When Lindsey and Jessica first started jumping, they had nothing,” said Sarah Hendrickson, the 19-year-old reigning world champion who is – provided she’s sufficiently recovered from a knee injury to compete in Sochi – likely to be the ultimate beneficiary of Van and Jerome’s sacrifices. “They were paying for trips out of pocket. They were having lemonade stands and everything to raise money just so they could compete. I can’t imagine how hard that must have been. It just comes back to a love of the sport that they wanted to keep doing it. They sacrificed so much.

“I owe it all to them for the fight they had to go through. I can’t thank them enough.”

Van received all the thanks she needed on April 6, 2011, when, after observing that season’s World Championships, the IOC determined the caliber of competition was sufficiently high to merit a spot on the program for Sochi.

But after spending almost a decade waiting for that very moment, the predominant emotion Van felt that day wasn’t joy. It was relief.

“It probably took a good year before it even seemed real,” Van said. “It’s hard to hear no forever and then all of a sudden one day it’s yes. So when you hear 20 years of no and then you hear yes one day, it’s hard to switch your mind around like that.”

On the eve of the Games, it’s safe to say her mind is switched around now.

But even as she prepares to compete for the medal she never thought she’d have a chance to win, Van is trying to remain focused more on the Olympic experience and less on the final outcome.