On glorious night, women's ski jumping proves it belongs

Women's ski jumping entered the Olympics in captivating style Tuesday night, and for pioneer Lindsey Van, battered by the long fight for acceptance, it was the moment of a lifetime.

Matthias Schrader/AP
Germany's Carina Vogt is congratulated by teammates after winning the gold during the women's normal hill ski jumping final at the 2014 Winter Olympics Tuesday in Krasnaya Polyana, Russia.

Even on this, admittedly most satisfying night of her ski jumping career, Lindsey Van is still looking uphill – to the next challenge, to something bigger.

“I want to jump on that hill,” she says, nodding.

“That hill” is the large, 120-meter hill that only the boys get to jump off in this Olympics. She and 29 other girls have just finished the first ever Olympic competition for women on the normal, 90-meter hill right next to it.

Truth be told, the large hill is a monster. Viewed from below, it looks like something you wouldn’t throw your worst enemy off, much less your teenage daughter strapped to a pair of skis.

But Van and her band of sparkly-suited sisters have just provided the best possible argument for why they should get to jump off pretty much anything they want with cameras rolling. After Tuesday night, it doesn’t seem impossible that they could turn jumping off their own garage roofs into gripping drama.

This was one of those nights, when something subtle but perceptible shifts – when those in the stadium recognize they are witnessing something remarkable.

It was a wonderful athletic moment. For a sport that was once denied participation in the Olympics because of a perceived lack of depth of talent, it provided an upset at the very first opportunity. The best jumper of the past two years failed to even medal, and it was hardly an implosion. Others simply jumped better, more beautifully, more thrillingly.

So take that, International Olympic Committee.

But this wasn’t a night for that. And it was more than just an athletic moment. When a pre-event press conference can with some justification utter the words “human rights” – and then provide the goods to back it up – it is an Olympic moment in the purest sense of the concept.

It was a night when the German girl who placed 23rd (out of 30) was acting like it was her birthday; she simply could not stop smiling. It was a night when you watched with equal parts awe and terror as her 15-year-old teammate sped toward the precipice, and then, as she later talked to the press, braces flashing, asked: Would I want someone to tell my daughter she couldn’t do this?

And it was a night when both of them dog-piled on teammate Carina Vogt in disbelief when the judges confirmed that her last jump had indeed been as lovely as it looked to the rest of us, and she was the first-ever Olympic champion in women’s ski jumping.

Now, if we just got to watch them again on the large hill, maybe we’d be satisfied.

In truth, Tuesday night was not about the battle ahead for Van, though she offered her help in the cause, if needed. Tuesday night was about Tuesday night and the fact that every woman who took a flying leap into the Russian night was, at last, an Olympian after a nearly decade-long fight to get the sport accepted.

Van did not win a medal. Her best jumping days came when the Olympic movement did not want her – in fact, actively sought to keep her out of the Olympic club. Back when the women’s ski jumping circuit she helped pioneer once involved staying overnight in a barn. But that hardly mattered.

For her entire professional career, Van was something more than an athlete because circumstances and her conscience demanded that she be so. She wanted to jump, and she didn’t think it was right that people told her she couldn’t – in the Olympics, on large hills, on the even larger “ski flying” hills.

So she fought back. She sued. She protested at the Vancouver Olympics. She hated doing it all. But someone had to do it, and that someone happened to be her. She was Lindsey Van the ski jumper/activist.

On Tuesday night, for perhaps the first time in her career, she was Lindsey Van the ski jumper. Period.

“I feel way better now than I ever have in my career,” said the 2009 world champion of her 15th-place finish Tuesday night. “For the first time in my career I’m living now, not talking about what I’m going to do.”

Only a few months before, appearing at a US Olympic team media summit, she appeared almost dour.

Are you glad that women’s ski jumping is finally in the Olympics?

“It’s a step.”

Why do you think the IOC relented?

“I think they just got sick of us.”

Are you optimistic about the possibility of having large hill and team events added in future Olympics?

“There’s a part of ski jumping that said, ‘We gave you this, now be happy and go away.’ ”

She spoke as though she was waiting for the Olympics to pull the football away just as she was about to kick it. A conditioned response after years of experience, it seemed – expect the worst.

Then Tuesday night happened, and she was as giddy as the grinning 15-year-old in braces. “You can’t make up these feelings,” she said, struggling to explain them.

At one point in the opening ceremony, teammate Jessica Jerome said, Van was bawling.

There is work to be done ahead. Jerome’s parents started a nonprofit, Women’s Ski Jumping USA (WSJ-USA), precisely because they didn’t think too much of people telling their daughter she couldn’t jump. They still don’t think much of them telling her to be content on the small hills or with no team event.

The woman they’ve put in charge of WSJ-USA, President Deedee Corradini, said in a pre-event press conference: “We’re going to be a scrappy organization for a long time to come. Where we’re lacking funding is in our development program, and one of our worries is what will happen to funding after the Olympics.”

Jessica’s father, Peter, said it could be years before women ski jumpers will be treated as equals in the Olympic program and on the hills themselves, where many women say they still feel unwelcome.

But on Tuesday night, they did the only possible thing they could. They put on a show.

“Everyone who watched will love women’s ski jumping,” said silver medalist Daniela Iraschko-Stolz of Austria, who has been jumping with Van since 1998.

Maybe, just maybe, that might include Olympic officials themselves.

Looking up at the large hill, with its inviting white apron sticking out at her like a taunting tongue, Van says: “I think the sport deserves to be there.”

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