Fly Girls

Members of the U.S. Women’s Ski Jumping Team, aka The Fly Girls, gathered last April for breakfast at a house on a quiet street in Park City, Utah. The home belonged to former Salt Lake City Mayor Deedee Corradini — a longtime advocate of the team and the sport — and over their bagels and coffee, they were waiting to hear if they would become Olympic athletes.

That morning, the International Olympic Committee would announce if women’s ski jumping would be an event at the next Olympic Winter Games, an opportunity ripped from their grasp at the Vancouver Games 15 months earlier after the athletes lost a hard-fought gender-discrimination court case. Although more than 20 countries had world-class teams competing internationally, ski jumping was the only Olympic sport in which women were not allowed to participate.

An IOC press conference from London blared over a speakerphone. The young women, stoic in the face of losses competitive and legal, stared at each other in shock when the announcement was made, then cheered and hugged all around. Their battle for IOC recognition — which sometimes felt more strenuous than their grueling, six-day-a-week training regimen — was finally over.

But another battle was just beginning.

“We have had to fight tooth and nail to get to where we are now,” says Lindsey Van, 27, who began jumping at age 7 in her home town of Park City, and was the first to win a World Championship in Women’s Ski Jumping after the International Ski Federation (FIS) opened to the sport in 2009. “The fight has been exhausting, so when the IOC finally said yes, all I felt was relief, as though I’d barely avoided a car crash. Everyone else was excited, but I just kind of sat there. OK, I thought, we can get on with it now.”

The long, emotional journey had intensified during the lawsuit against the Vancouver Organizing Committee, host of the 2010 Games. Enlisting 13 other top international women ski jumpers, Van and teammate Jessica Jerome, now 24, led the effort to take the committee to court in Canada as a way to force themselves into the Games. Though the judge agreed with the suit’s contention that the International Olympic Committee was discriminating against women, it noted that the Canadian court had no jurisdiction over IOC decisions.

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“It took a lot of guts for those girls to sign the lawsuit,” Deedee Corradini, the president of WSJ-USA, told me in her Park City office. “They were scared to death. They could have been penalized, yet it had to be the athletes who fi led the suit.” Getting the IOC to admit Women’s Ski Jumping into the Olympics, she added, was also the toughest feat she had ever accomplished, next to winning the Olympic Games for Salt Lake City when she was mayor from 1992 to 2000. “I got to know the IOC very well back then, and that helped in this fight. The IOC was embarrassed by the results of the lawsuit. I know it made a difference.”

Also of help was the FIS’s inclusion of Women’s Ski Jumping in the Nordic World Championships of 2009, which came with a public recommendation that the IOC include the discipline in the Vancouver Games. As the parent organization to ski sports globally, FIS not only runs the World Championships, but also the elite World Cup tour and the Continental Cup tour, which has offered International Women’s Ski Jumping competitions since 2004. For the first time this winter, the women are also jumping on the World Cup in 15 competitions with broad television exposure (at least in Europe).

The sun was bright, the aspen trees in full foliage on the summer morning Iarrive at Park City’s Olympic Park, the ski-jumping site of the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympic Games and home to the U.S. team. The two jumps — a K90 and a K120 — soar above the steep landing hill covered in strips of green plastic that replicate the slick quality of hard snow. The team’s five athletes are warming up on the roller jump, a 25-foot slanted wood track that allows jumpers to practice the take-off, a jump’s most critical moment. One by one, they bend into an aerodynamic tuck on the small platform that rolls down the ramp. At the bottom, gauging their timing to the millisecond, each explodes upward and outward onto a cushioned mat.

“It’s all about muscle memory,” Jerome explains as I watch each jumper dial in her technique before heading to the hill. “That moment has to become automatic, so we do it over and over and over. You can’t think about it or you’ll mess up. Your body has to sense that exact moment, not your mind.”

As the women grab their skis and suits and head to the lift, team coach Alan Alborn drives me up a steep, gutted road to the coach’s box, a platform close to the point of take-off. A 10-year veteran of the U.S. men’s team, a two-time Olympian and current holder of the North American distance record of 221.5 meters, Alborn has been conjuring up coaching advice from his long experience to steer the women to podium finishes this winter on the World Cup tour and, in February 2014, to their debut performance at the Sochi, Russia, Olympic Games.

From the coach’s box, the experience of the jumps is intense. As each athlete speeds down the hill at 55 mph (65 mph on the bigger hill) and springs forward at take-off , the sudden impact of body and air creates a loud “Swoosh!” It’s the same graceful, laid-out position I’d often seen on television, but that almost violent roar screams raw athleticism: speed, strength, courage, and technique all thrown together. Watching from the side rather than head-on makes the distances more real. These women were leaping through the air the length of a football field.

After each jump, an athlete picks up a radio at the bottom of the lift to talk with Alborn. “You’re a little toe-sy, Jessica … too quick in your take-off ,” Alborn tells Jerome. “Go slower, use more rhythm.” Turning to me, he explains that he was trying to slow her down, to harmonize the speed of the in-run with her rhythm coming off the lip. “It all has to become one movement so you don’t disperse any of the speed you’ve built up on the in-run.”

In a video session after morning practice, Alborn puts each jumper under a microscope in a jargon as alien to me as physics, full of references to ski angles, drive out, drop tip, optimal angle, flight arc, core control, and short (or fast) timing. The conversation never strays far from the central focus of their task: floating, flying, defying as long as possible the inexorable force of gravity. He spots someone’s jumpsuit vibrating in the air, and tells her to sew it tighter. Even their long tresses are a source of concern. “Hair that hangs out the back of your helmet equals wind resistance. Make it a buzz cut like mine and you’ll fly farther.” The girls grab their manes protectively, as though he were hiding scissors behind his back.

“It’s all about getting another meter where you can,” Alborn says. “Every little bit counts.”

At 5’3″ and with legs like iron, Van has been jumping for more than 20 years. She is passionate about her sport and, when competing, passionate about winning. Not only was she the first women’s ski-jumping world champion — with 40 international career podiums and 15 national titles to her name — but she currently holds the North American distance record with a jump of 171 meters.

As I speak with her coach, Van walks over and squats beside us in her in-run tuck. Without interrupting our conversation, Alborn sits down on her back as though he had come across a convenient bench. “Yeah, this must look kind of extreme,” he says to my obvious shock, “but it’s her idea. It stretches out all the muscles that come into play when jumping.”

Van is extreme in the way that Bode Miller in ski racing is extreme: extreme in her drive for perfection, in insisting on being her own person, in demanding the most of herself, in doing it her way. She feels as intense as a blast furnace, as wily as a lioness picking off an eland on an African savannah. Yet she’s not even sure she’ll be jumping at the Sochi Olympics in 2014. “Right now, my planning extends to this winter only. That’s as far as I can go. Beyond that, no clue.”

In making his recently released documentary on the women’s ski jumping team, Ready to Fly, filmmaker Bill Kerig spent long days with Van. “At a young age, she knocked on the door, and no one answered,” he told me. “She knocked louder. Still no one opened it. So she screamed, she hollered, she beat on the door, then she kicked it. Ultimately, she broke down the door to a sport that had kept her out because of the way she was born, as a woman.”

“To be a contending Olympic athlete, you have to be a fighter,” Van explains. “It’s inborn. You have to want to be good for yourself, not for any other reason. Not for money or fame or travel. You need that unwavering passion for the sport and the passion to win. That passion is kind of scary. When an athlete has it, you feel it.”

Jerome, 24, Van’s front-line ally in the battle for Olympic recognition over the past decade and one of the most personable members of the team, boasts seven U.S. championships and 20 podium finishes on the Continental Cup tour. She also has suffered more injuries than any of her teammates: a lacerated spleen, dislocated elbow, a blown ACL, and various concussions and ice facials. Though admired for her grit and determination, the 10-year veteran of international competition doesn’t fool herself on the challenges that now face the American team.

“The competitive field has become a lot tougher over the past five years,” she says. “Being so far from Europe is really hard on us. We can’t see how the other girls are training or how they’re jumping or what their latest gear improvements are. We need to find a way to bridge that gap.”

Other U.S. winter-sports teams have experienced similar frustrations for years. Snow sports get little recognition in the United States, and even less television time, whereas European skiers and jumpers are “rock stars,” as Jerome puts it. “It’s so disappointing. Women’s ski-jumping events are broadcast on European TV on weekends, so people know and appreciate the athletes. They get generous sponsorships. They can actually make a living on the tour. That’s a lot more difficult for us.”

With less exposure in the United States, it’s also a lot more challenging to maintain the team’s competitive viability. Ironically, WSJ-USA’s leadership in pushing for FIS and IOC recognition is creating much stiffer and better-funded competition in such Nordic ski-centric countries as Germany, Norway, France, Austria, Slovenia, and Finland, which can tap more sources for far bigger budgets.

“Honestly, my concern is the future,” Corradini confides. “What if we can’t provide the kind of funds for our team that other countries are stepping up with now? After years of being in the lead, now we are way behind the others financially.” As a result, she and her staff at WSJ-USA, along with a number of involved parents, have been in constant fundraising mode ever since, struggling to fill the sizeable shortfall between revenue and the annual budget.

“No question, our biggest roadblock is financial,” says Alborn. “Resources make a huge difference in the ability to provide better skis and boots, top-level technicians, the latest suits, aerodynamic training, and the best coaches. There are so many details we need to focus on and improve.” The growing number of national teams competing in women’s ski jumping, and the increasing competitive depth on each team, has him nervous as well. “The odds of winning are not as good, so we have to do everything we can to narrow those odds.”

One big weapon is the youngest member of the team and strongest up-and-comer, Sarah Hendrickson, who at 17 launched this season by winning her first U.S. National Ski Jumping title. “Even as young as she is,” says Van, “you can feel that Sarah has both the passion and talent to be a contending Olympic athlete. She is our future.”

“Sarah has stepped up above everybody in these past months,” Alborn told me in November. Hendrickson

won her first international Continental Cup competition in 2009 in Poland, then took the bronze at the 2010 Junior World Championship in Germany, the first American ever to medal in that competition. She finished 2010 by being named U.S. Ski Jumping Athlete of the Year.

“Going into our first World Cup season ever, winning the U.S. title is definitely a confidence booster,” Hendrickson says. “I am happy with what I’m doing. Growing up allows me to focus on getting stronger. In fact, I can do more weight sessions now that I’m 17. And with no school this winter, I can focus on winning every weekend this season for the first time.”

“We are all out there for one thing,” she adds, “to do the best we can do. Which means, of course, winning.”

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