They strapped on their helmets and goggles, boldly raced down a steep icy ramp, and then, like pioneer aviator Amelia Earhart 80 years ago, the female ski jumpers of the 2014 Winter Olympics took flight and made history Tuesday night at the RusSki Gorki Jumping Center.
More than 150 years after the first documented ski jump by a woman — Ingrid Olavsdottir Vestby of Norway, wearing a skirt, soared 20 feet in 1862 — 30 women from 12 countries competed in the inaugural Olympic women’s ski jump after a long battle for inclusion.
One by one, they flung themselves off the ramp, just like their male counterparts, defying suggestions the sport is too dangerous, unhealthy and unladylike.
The world did not come to an end. Nobody’s uterus fell out (U.S. team member Lindsey Van said a detractor once suggested that might be a consequence of women entering the sport).
In 2005, Gian Franco Kasper of Switzerland, president of the International Ski Federation, said the sport “seems not to be appropriate for ladies from a medical point of view.’’
On Monday, Russian ski jump coach Alexander Arefyev said in the newspaper Izvestia: “I admit, I’m not a fan of women’s ski jumping. It’s a pretty difficult sport with a high risk of injury. If a man gets a serious injury, it’s still not fatal, but for women it could end much more seriously.
“If I had a daughter, I’d never let her jump — it’s too much hard labor. Women have another purpose — to have children, to do housework, to create hearth and home,”
After fighting an uphill battle for the past decade, and filing a lawsuit four years ago, the easy part for these women was zooming downhill and flying through the air at 60 mph, about 10-15 feet off the ground, for the length of a football field.
Carina Vogt of Germany won the gold medal with 247.4 points — scoring is based on a formula combining distance, speed and jump style points. Daniela Iraschko-Stolz of Austria won the silver with 246.2 points, and Coline Mattel of France (245.2) took bronze. Iraschko-Stolz made a double statement as a female ski jumper and an openly gay woman winning a medal in a country that has been under fire for its anti-gay propaganda law.
“I think I did my best at the ski jumping, and I’m married to a woman,’’ she said after the event. “It’s a good statement, especially in Russia, to show that people can live together.”
Pre-Olympic favorite Sara Takanashi, a 5-foot jumper who had won 10 of 13 World Cup events this season, finished off the podium in fourth place. Jessica Jerome, 27, of Park City, Utah, was the top American in 10th place. Lindsey Van, 29, who led the charge to get the sport recognized, finished 15th.
“We can call ourselves Olympians now, and I couldn’t do that yesterday,’’ said Van, who admitted she bawled at the opening ceremony.
“This is something I’ve been doing for 20 years, hoping that one day I can go to the Olympics and jump, so being able to finally do that, that was the easiest part.’’ said Jerome. “I didn’t perform to my best ability, but I’m still happy, strangely, and I think all the girls from all the countries are just smiling. There is a special camaraderie all the girls have and I really felt it (Tuesday night). We were up there high-fiving with the Norwegians and the Finns and the Canadians. Everybody was just really glad to be sharing this with someone who really gets what we’ve been trying to do.’’
The very first competitor to jump was 19-year-old American and reigning world champion Sarah Hendrickson. She blew out her knee last August, and just returned to jumping on Jan. 11. She had only 25 training jumps the past six months, while the other jumpers had 300-400.
“I didn’t realize the significance when I was given bib No. 1, obviously because I don’t have any World Cup points and I was like, ‘Oh, bib No. 1? That kind of sucks because I’m used to being among the last ones and then someone says, ‘Well, no, you’re the first girl EVER to jump in an Olympics. I kind of took that and ran with it. It’s a pretty cool thing. We put on an awesome show and the world saw what we’ve been working for.’’
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Watching it all from the stands, waving American flags, were the U.S. jumpers’ families and others who fought for the sport.
“We’ve already won,’’ DeeDee Corrandini, President of Women’s Ski Jumping USA, said just before the start of the competition. “Every single ski jumper who’s here has already won just to be here.
“Our battle to get the women into ski jumping became much more than ski jumping It really became a women’s rights issue and a human rights issue because we were really fighting for all women in all sports and in all aspects of life. Hopefully, we have taught other young girls and young women around the world that if you really are persistent, never give up, and fight hard, hopefully you can achieve your dreams.’’
Jerome’s dad, who had witnessed sexual discrimination at the U.S. Naval Academy, went to bat for his daughter. He bought the book “Non-Profits for Dummies,’’ and started raising funds for the team. Other parents were also very involved.
“I think there’s a preconceived notion that men are braver than women,’’ said Bill Hendrickson, Sarah’s father. “It takes a lot of guts and confidence for these women to go off this big ski jump. They are dispelling that myth that just men are brave enough to go off these big jumps. There certainly are ladies out there that have aptitude, athleticism, bravery and courage to do the same kinds of things men do.’’
And that, they say, is all they want. A chance.
An Olympic VISA commercial was recently launched featuring Hendrickson and a recording made in 1937 of Amelia Earhart saying, “Please know I’m quite aware of the hazards. I want to do it because I want to do it. Women must try to do things as men have tried. When they fail, their failures must be but a challenge to others.”
Earhart surely would be enjoyed being at the RusSki Gorki Ski Jumping Center Tuesday night.