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Soaring to Sochi

Soaring to Sochi

Lindsey Van brought the I.O.C. to heel. Now can she win an Olympic medal?
By Joe Cutts
posted: 12/31/2013
Lindsey Van

The handicappers will be hard on Lindsey Van. She’s going on 29, and has battled serious injury in recent years, starting with a knee-demolishing crash in 2008.

But Van, world champion ski jumper, is nothing if not a fighter. She and teammate Jessica Jerome took the International Olympic Committee to court in 2008, suing for the inclusion of women’s jumping in the Olympics. The suit was denied, but it raised a media stir that forced the IOC to finally blink in 2011, when it finally added women’s jumping to the Sochi Olympics.

Van can only wonder why it took so long. “It’s a very European, traditional, male-dominated sport,” she says. “An extreme sport that only men could do. If a bunch of women start doing it, does that take away some of the extreme value for them? A lot people think that might be it.”

Van could be excused for feeling sorry for herself. She was a world champion at the height of her abilities in 2010 and would have been a clear favorite at Vancouver. But recent years have been hard—surgeries in both 2011 and 2012.

And if Sochi once looked like a surefire medal haul for the U.S. women, who won the Nation’s Cup the past two years, that’s less certain now. Van’s teammate, Sarah Hendrickson, second in the 2013 standings (Van was eighth), suffered a serious knee injury in an August training crash—a blow to U.S. hopes.

But don’t count a newly healthy Van out. “It’s been over a year since any surgery. That’s pretty good for me. I’m jumping as far or farther than I did at my best, and here I am jumping and training in summer, so I’m way ahead of last two years.”

Meanwhile, women’s jumping’s new Olympic status makes it easier for an athlete to make a living. For Van, who once cobbled together odd jobs to support her career (“dog-walking, housesitting, painting for my dad”), that’s no small victory in itself.

“Now you can make a career out of it. It’s good to see it moving in the right direction.”

The following is a digital-exclusive Q&A with Van.

Are you feeling competitive now? How do you stack up against Lindsey Van at her best?
That’s hard to say, it’s the middle of summer and everything, but would say yeah, I’m jumping as far or farther than I did at my best, and here I am jumping and training in summer, so way ahead of last two years right there, so can’t complain.

What’s the status of your health? Clean bill?
I’m good. I’m healthier than I’ve been in years—still not quite as healthy as I want to be, but I’ve been able to train all summer, and I feel good. I’m psyched. It’s nice feel all healthy, to feel like a real athlete again. It’s been over a year since any surgery, so that’s pretty good for me.

Injuries can undermine confidence. How’s yours?
It’s always hard get back out there after an injury, but you do it because you love the sport. It’s been good. I’m in a good place now, excited for the Olympics and ready to have as much fun as I can.

The injury to Sarah Hendrickson came at a tough time. After all the work to get into the Olympics, does the U.S. women’s team feel a little snake-bit?
It’s never smooth sailing, being an athlete who competes at a high level. You gotta accept that injuries happen. It sucks big-time for her, right before Olympics. She’ll learn more about herself from it, though there are a lot more fun ways to do that.

Elite male jumpers have been able to make a living at ski jumping for a long time. Can women do that now?
I kind of am finally able to make a living off my jumping career now, but it has been hard. Now you can make a career out of it, which I couldn’t when I started out, but someone like Sarah, who’s 10 years younger than me, has done that all along. It’s great to see all the work the women’s ski jumping community has done to this point come to fruition and pay off for someone like her.

We know you had to scramble to support your training financially, with lots of odd jobs. Examples?
Let’s see, I worked at a physical therapy clinic for five years. I’ve done a lot of house-sitting, dog sitting, other animals. Anything I could do to make it so I could still train and jump. Just random odd jobs, literally anything—helping my dad paint stuff, giving people rides to the airport really early in the morning. But that’s gotten better, and it’s good to see it moving in right direction.

The FIS was the first to sanction women’s jumping, before the IOC. Is that surprising?
Yeah (laughs), it’s hard to imagine FIS being the more progressive institution, but it’s true. We had to push them really hard though, first to get them to accept it and then to get them to recommend it to the IOC. We spent a lot of time with them saying no first, before we got there.

So what was the big deal? Why not let women jump?
It’s a very European, traditional, male-dominated sport. An extreme sport that only men could do. If a bunch of women start doing it, does that take away some of the extreme value for them? A lot people think that might be it.

We admire your advocacy on the issue of bone-marrow donation. How did that come about?
I had a roommate who had leukemia and needed bone-marrow transplant. He’s an African-American male, so I wasn’t a match that could help him, but he encouraged me to sign up to help someone else. So I did, and one day I got a call, and they said, ‘You’re a perfect match for someone in need.’ They’d had other near matches, but they evaluate you on 10 things, and I was 10 out of 10. So I donated for that guy twice, which was really cool, having a chance to help give someone a second chance at life. It’s a really neat experience, and a very different situation, kind of opposite from the life of an athlete.

We’re sure people will be inspired by your example. How can they help?
It’s easy. You sign up at bethematch.com. They just send you a cheek swab, you swab it, send it back, and then you’re in the system and they let you know when you can help. 

What if we don’t like huge needles? Isn’t it a gnarly procedure?
No! They don’t actually harvest marrow any more. They still can do that, but now they do something called a stem cell transplant. They give you series of shots to make your make bones produce new stem cells, and they take those directly from the blood. They separate out the new stem cells, then give you back your blood. It’s not at all like giving bone marrow—not a big painful procedure like used to be. It’s just them taking some of your blood, taking out what they need, giving back everything else.

Sounds like it’ll be good for your Olympic karma. But do ever feel like after you blazed the trail and did all that work to get women’s jumping recognized, your dream has come true just a little too late in your competitive career?
At this point I’m just happy be where I’m at. I’m healthy, I’m glad to be training and competing, and with all that, I can’t really complain.

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