The Edge
8:53 pm
Sun February 2, 2014

After Decade-Long Fight, Ski Jumper Lindsey Van Is 'Ready To Fly'

Originally published on Sat February 8, 2014 3:34 pm

For more than a decade, ski jumper Lindsey Van dreamed of making the U.S. Olympic team, but one thing held her back: Female ski jumpers weren't allowed to compete. Until this year.

This month, the 29-year-old from Park City, Utah, will be one of the athletes competing at the Olympics on the U.S. women's ski jumping team. For Van, that competition marks the end of a very long road.

"Honestly, I don't really have words for it," she said at a press conference announcing the team. "I'm just completely overwhelmed and happy to be representing my sport."

When she was a child, Van amazed people with her ability to fearlessly fly through the air. As a young adult, she was one of the plaintiffs in a lawsuit against the organizing committee for the Vancouver Olympics, whose goal was to force the committee to let women compete. The legal effort failed because the Canadian court decided it couldn't impose local law on an international organization.

Olympic officials and other international sporting organizations argued that women's ski jumping wasn't advanced enough as a sport and that too few women competed worldwide at too low a level.

Gian-Franco Kasper, head of the International Ski Federation, told NPR in 2005 that he wasn't convinced women's bodies were cut out for it.

"Don't forget, it's like jumping down from, let's say, about 2 meters on the ground about a thousand times a year, which seems not to be appropriate for ladies from a medical point of view," said Kasper.

Van and other athletes believed that this amounted to discrimination.

"[It's] just pretty painful to watch people I grew up training with be able to have that opportunity, and me sit there knowing that I don't even have that opportunity because I'm not a male," Van said in 2008.

Times have changed. After years of fighting, in 2011 Van and the world's other female ski jumpers got the news they had been waiting for: The International Olympic Committee announced that women's ski jumping would make its debut at the Sochi Games. Then began a new struggle — making the team.

Thousands of people came out to watch the trials in Park City in December. Van was soaking it all in.

"I try not to think about the historic nature of it today," she said. "Not put too much pressure on myself."

Over the years, representing her sport has taken a toll on her.

"She's a great and talented athlete who loves to fly, and all the rest is just stuff she has to endure," says Bill Kerig, the filmmaker behind a documentary about Van's efforts called Ready to Fly. She has suffered ulcers and sleep loss from the stress of it, he says. "It was a really tough go on her."

Van came in second at the trials and had to wait three more weeks to find out whether she made the team. She said she was glad to finally focus on the competition, rather than the fight to compete in the first place.

"It's great to be an athlete," she said. "Be a real athlete. Get those same opportunities."

At the press conference announcing the Olympic team, the athletes were asked about their medal chances in Sochi; head coach Alan Alborn jumped in.

"They deserve a medal hung around their necks for what they've done for the sport," he said. "At the end of the day, it's not about medals. It's about inspiring young people."

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ARUN RATH, HOST:

Meanwhile in Sochi, the games continue. Today, the U.S. won its first gold for slopestyle snowboarding. It's a new event this year, and it's not the only one. On Tuesday, the sport of women's ski jumping makes its Winter Olympics debut. One of the athletes competing will be 29-year-old Lindsey Van from Park City, Utah. As part of our series The Edge, NPR's Tamara Keith reports.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: When she was a tiny girl amazing people with her ability to fearlessly fly through the air, ski jumper Lindsey Van had a dream.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "READY TO FLY")

LINDSEY VAN: My goal is to make the Olympic team 2002 for girls.

KEITH: This clip comes from a documentary called "Ready to Fly" that chronicles Van's fight to get to the games. For Van, working hard to be the very best in her sport wasn't enough, because women ski jumpers weren't welcome in the Olympics until this year, 12 years after the games Van first set her sights on.

(SOUNDBITE OF TELECONFERENCE)

LUKE BODENSTEINER: For the first time ever, we are thrilled to be naming both men and women to our U.S. Olympic ski jumping team.

KEITH: Luke Bodensteiner is executive vice president of the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association. The announcement was broadcast by teleconference.

(SOUNDBITE OF TELECONFERENCE)

BODENSTEINER: From Park City, Utah, Lindsey Van.

KEITH: For Van, this marked the end of a very long road. In Sochi earlier this week, she said she was excited her sport was finally getting its due.

VAN: It's taken 90 years for women to be here, so check us out. I mean, I'm just thrilled to show ski jumping to the world and that women can do it too.

KEITH: At what was the most intense part of the battle, Van was one of the plaintiffs in a lawsuit against the organizing committee for the Vancouver Olympics. The goal was to force them to let women compete. But the legal effort failed.

VAN: It's just pretty painful to watch, you know, people I grew up training with be able to have the opportunity and me sit there knowing that I don't even have that opportunity because I'm not a male.

KEITH: Olympic officials and others argued that women's ski jumping wasn't advanced enough as a sport. Not enough women competed worldwide, and not at a high enough level.

In a 2005 interview with NPR, Gian Franco Kasper, who is head of the International Ski Federation, said he wasn't convinced women's bodies were cut out for the sport.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

GIAN FRANCO KASPER: Don't forget, it's like jumping down from, let's say, about two meters on the ground about 1,000 times a year, which seems not to be appropriate for ladies from a medical point of view.

KEITH: Times have changed. And in 2011, after years of fighting, Van and the world's other female ski jumpers got the news they had been waiting for. The International Olympic Committee announced that women's ski jumping would make its debut at the Sochi games. Then began a new kind of struggle - actually making the team.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

KEITH: A near-record crowd came out to watch the trials in Park City, Utah, in December. And Van said she was soaking it all in.

VAN: I try not to think about the historic nature of it today, you know? I try to focus on my jumps and not too much - put too much pressure on myself.

KEITH: Over the years, representing her sport has taken a toll on Van.

BILL KERIG: She's a great and talented athlete who loves to fly. And all the rest is just stuff she has to endure.

KEITH: Bill Kerig is the filmmaker behind "Ready to Fly." And he was there in Park City to cheer her on.

KERIG: I know she lost so much sleep over it and her athletic performance suffered. Just ulcers - and it was a really tough go on her.

KEITH: Van came in second at the trials and had to wait another three weeks to find out whether she made the team. But she said she was glad to finally just focus on the competition rather than the fight to compete.

VAN: It's great to be an athlete and, you know, finally have that focus and be a real athlete, you know, and get those same opportunities. And we're all excited to be here.

KEITH: At the press conference announcing the Olympic team, the athletes were asked about their medal chances here in Sochi. Their coach jumped in and said all these women deserve a medal for what they've done for the sport. Tamara Keith, NPR News, Sochi. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.