Jumpers further prove overdue inclusion
KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia -- None of the hydraulics that enabled women's ski jumping to go wheels-up at the Winter Olympic Games on Tuesday were visible to the naked eye. Like most smooth takeoffs, it went by in a blink.
To see the years of engineering the evening entailed, it was necessary to look elsewhere. It was necessary to witness the exhilaration written across Lindsey Van's face.
"It actually feels for the first time in my life that I'm living now and not talking about what I'm going to do," said Van, who has invested much of the past 10 years in achieving a collective goal, an effort that at times sapped her own ambition. "I'm here, and that itself is a relief and makes me extremely happy. Somebody just won the Olympics."
To see how short-sighted it was for the International Olympic Committee to keep the sawhorses across the runway for so long -- at one point awkwardly declaring that the women's game lacked "universality" -- it was necessary to watch Germany's Carina Vogt in the seconds before she knew she had won the gold medal.
Vogt sank into a crouch in the landing area at the RusSki Gorki Jumping Center with her hands half-covering her eyes, waiting for her score to flash up on the big board, then exploded with nearly as big a plyometric move as she executes on the hill.
Hard to imagine anything more universal than that.
To see how well these athletes balanced the complex equation of being fulfilled by the occasion, yet were still openly yearning for more as individuals, it was necessary to listen to the measured words of Jessica Jerome, who was the top U.S. finisher in 10th place.
"I didn't perform to my best ability, but I'm still happy, strangely," Jerome said. "I think everyone is. There is a special camaraderie. I really felt it tonight. We were up there high-fiving the Norwegians and the Finns and the Canadian girls, and everybody was really glad to be sharing this with their competitors and friends.
"I don't want to seem complacent. I know if I had done what I was doing a week and a half ago in Park City, I would have been up there on the medal [stand]. It just didn't happen for me today. It's unfortunate, but just being able to be here and share this with all my friends and competitors, that's, I guess, a really awesome consolation prize."
At 29 and 27, Van and Jerome are the senior members of a Park City, Utah-bred crew who began jumping there, the way other kids naturally grab a basketball and head for the driveway.
Others were picking up steam coming down the inramps of Canada and Japan and the traditional European jumping nations. Austria's Daniela Iraschko-Stolz, who won the silver medal Tuesday, has been competing against Van since 1998. "She deserves a lot of this piece of pie, too," said Van, who finished 15th, smack in the middle of the field of 30.
The two Americans were forerunners for the male jumpers who came to their backyard for the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics. They tested the conditions in a different way in court, as they were the first to sign on in what ended up being a multinational group of plaintiffs in a lawsuit against Canadian organizers leading up to the 2010 Vancouver Games. The women, their families and supporters had grown angrily weary of hearing the IOC claim their ranks in a century-old sport weren't deep enough while simultaneously adding flashy new action events created from scratch.
"No one handed this to them," said Jerome's father Peter, who was instrumental in starting the non-profit foundation that has been the team's chief financial engine in the absence of consistent funding from the U.S. Ski Team. "Being good at what they did didn't get them here tonight. They had to show an incredible amount of stick-to-itiveness back in the days when there was no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow."
The suit fell short, but that didn't stop the growth of the sport or the emergence of young stars like diminutive Sara Takanashi of Japan -- who has dominated the World Cup circuit this season but was bumped from the podium by France's Coline Mattel -- or 19-year-old Park City native Sarah Hendrickson, the 2013 world champion.
Hendrickson blew out her right knee in August, had reconstructive surgery, undertook a grueling, accelerated rehab and was put on the team as a discretionary selection, only to struggle with pain and dented confidence when she got to Sochi. She was able to log just 25 training jumps before Tuesday.
In an odd twist owing to her lack of competitive results, Hendrickson started first in the field and thus had the honor of kicking down the door of history. By the time she soared off the hill, she had done something more painful than any muscle-grinding physical therapy - scale back her expectations.
"Once I was named to the team, you want more," Hendrickson said. "As an athlete, I wanted a medal ... I kind of had to step back and talk to my coach and realize that this might not be a reality, and accept that I'm just proud to be here and proud to be a part of this first one."
The U.S. jumpers used a catchphrase from their childhood amongst themselves as they awaited their turn to fly: "Have one." It means good luck and safe travels.
Van felt remarkably light and liberated.
"I didn't even really think about the history and the fight to get here," she said. "I'm here, and that's all I really care about. I'm going forward and our sport is going forward and it's never going to be the same, and we can call ourselves Olympians now. I couldn't do that yesterday.
"I wanted to feel it for what it was. You can't make up these feelings. It's not like anything else. I'm glad I just went with it."
The women said they intend to keep working toward total equity. They want to jump off the "big one," the 120-meter hill, as well as the 90-meter or "normal" hill where they competed Tuesday. They want the IOC to add a team event to give them three, on a par with the men.
For now, they have a night that went by in a blur: 30 women doing two jumps that lasted 10 seconds apiece. There was no way the elapsed time could do justice to all that came before. But these are athletes who know how to make the most of one fleeting, floating moment.