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Fly Girls

The road to Sochi has been long and difficult for 29-year-old ski-jumper Lindsey Van. This year, she will be competing at Sochi in the very first women's Olympic ski-jumping trials. We've got the story from the beginning, highlighting the determined and passionate spirit of Van, even at just 13-years-old.

From SnoWorld Magazine, 1998

Deep in the otherworld of unsanctioned, untelevised, unfunded and largely unknown women’s sports, a small squadron of proud women ski jump. No bucks, no fame – they just love to fly.
By Donovan Webster

Lindsey Van is 13 years old and the best woman ski jumper in the United States - maybe the world. But at this moment, something else entirely towers at the forefront of her thoughts.

“Hey, Dad, let’s get out of here – they’re going to throw me in the garbage,” she says, easing toward the back door of Park City’s Winter Sports Park, where she does her training. It’s a February dusk, a Thursday, shortly past another afternoon’s practice. Van is a tiny mite of a thing, lithe and perhaps four-and-a-half feet tall, with honey blonde hair falling to her still coltish shoulder and –like the tip of an iceberg – a pair of Oakleys obscuring the upper half of her face, betraying only a hint of her formidable attitude.

Van’s father, a sturdy, black-haired local real-estater named Barry, turns to look at her. “The garbage?” he asks, his face twisted in consternation.

“Yeah,” Lindsey says, already though the door and up the concrete back stairs, making her way along a featureless cinder-block hall. “I was cutting line for jumps. They’re mad.”

The 55-gallon humiliation Lindsey sees waiting is no figment of a teenage imagination. It’s reality. A few minutes earlier, while hanging around the ski-jump lockers and equipment area, I’d heard the guys conspiring against her and motioning toward a refuse bin. 

I also understood why: Over the past 90 minutes, while Van and her mostly male club of 18-and-under ski jumpers practiced their craft on the Winter Sport Park’s 90-meter hill, Van was relentlessly pushing. At the end of each jump, she’d aim the edgeless battleships of her 220 cm jumping skis toward the chairlift that carries jumpers back uphill, racing for the earliest possible chair. Then, at the top of the lift, if the others weren’t diligently guarding their spot in line, she’d slide past time, through the jumper’s gate, and into the start area: completely out of turn and several places ahead of where she rightfully should have stood.

After a few such cycles, when she’d lapped her teammates at least once, the guys caught on and ratcheted up their defenses. As she raced for the empty seat on each double chair, they’d try to block her – arms and skis windmilling defensively – forcing Lindsey to claw her way aboard, at one point leaving her hanging by her arms in open air as the chair lurched uphill. At the top of the jump, she regularly confronted basketball-style box-outs.

Still, she kept pushing. If a team member paused for a bit of coaching or to dry-run his next jump, Lindsey would slip through into the start area and down in-run: red, white and blue foam jumper’s suit hurtling forward, pony tail flapping behind her white helmet in the breeze. At lift-off, her skis would pop on the jump’s lip, spreading apart into an aerodynamically wide V as the flat plane of her jumper’s suit blocked the gap between the skis, converting the teenage girl into a flying wing. Lindsay Van, in fact, has recently flown that wing 318 feet off a 120-meter jump. That’s longer than a football field. 

“I look at Lindsey’s skill, her desire,” Alan Johnson, one of the club’s coaches, told me that afternoon as we watched practice, “and I think she’s got everything it takes to be the Picabo Street of women’s ski jumping.” All she needs is to stay with it, and to have women’s ski jumping become recognized as an Olympic sport, which may or may not happen. That just depends how things go.”

Right now, though, all these concerns – the hours of practice and honed techniques, the necessary persistence, in-your-face gender equity against only possible recognition in an Olympic venue – remain far from Lindsey Van’s mind. As she exits the building and starts toward her father’s station wagon, she’s merely happy to be outside, having escaped the indignities of the garbage can.

“You know,” I suggest to her, “if you just kept your place in line, you wouldn’t have to worry about being stuffed in the garbage.”

Lindsey stops and reaches down, lifting a handful of Utah powder recently shoveled off the sidewalk. She pulls off her sunglasses and mops the snow across her face, wiping her skin dry with a sleeve. She puts back on her sunglasses and flashes an aggressive little grin. Her small face – complete with fully formed whataboutit moue – stares me down. “Yeah,” she says. “But what if I’d stayed in my place, I wouldn’t have gotten the extra jumps. I’m here to jump. So that’s what I do.”

Think of Gabrielle Reece and women’s pro volleyball. Consider Rebecca Lobo and WNBA. Jackie Joyner-Kersee. Martina Hingis. Mary Decker Slaney. Tara Lipinski. The US Women’s Olympic Hocey Team. Even Boonie Blair.

Now, take all of these women, plus hundreds of more like them – hi, again, Picabo! – and place them on one side of a think, soundproof, opaque curtain. This is the sanctioned side. The high-concept, high-dollar face of women’s professional and amateur sports in the late 1990s: an era when the patronized, “Oh isn’t that nice” image of female sports finally gave way to – if not equality with men – at least its own firm footing. In the last few years, women athletes have risen to the challenge, carving out superstar careers of their own. These days, sportswomen have shoe, clothing, soft drink and even Mcdonald’s advertising deals, which help subsidize the tending necessary to keep any athlete – male or female – at the top of their game.

And now let’s step to the other side of the curtain, where it’s… oh jeez, it’s really dark over here.

This is the domain of the unsanctioned, untelevised, unfunded and largely unknown women’s sports. And no woman’s sport may be firmly on the far side of the curtain than ski jumping. 

“The girl jumpers are viewed at a pretty low level,” says Linda Johnson, ski jump team manager for the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association, the body overseeing the U.S. Ski Team. “Money for the U.S. jumping team – the men – comes from the Olympic Committee, so women just don’t fit in. Not that we can’t foresee a time when women’s jumping will be an Olympic sport. It’s just being considered and I’m totally supportive of the women, but after our men’s team didn’t deliver at Nagano, there’s some question about the direction of even U.S. men’s events. We’ll need to fix that before we can add a women’s team. Don’t get me wrong, we’re not trying to shut women out, but a number of extenuating circumstances stand in their way at the moment.”

Facing obstacles like this, it’s easy to see why female ski jumping is bereft of big-time names and commercial sponsors. Across North America, there are no “officially sanctioned” training centers, no institutionally subsidized assistance, and – as a result of this – no household names. While a few women jumpers have broken out thanks to an increasingly female-friendly press, what scant publicity the women jumpers do rightly get often concerns their individual skills, not the state of women’s jumping.

Also, women have never technically been excluded from jump competitions. Inside jumping’s clubby and mostly male community, the policy has always been that ladies are welcome to try their hand. But to take part in the Olympics and other world-class events, they must join a national team, which means out-jumping men, who are generally heavier and stronger, making them better suited to the gravity-based demands of the sport. For the record, ski jumping, bobsledding and Nordic combined remain the only winter Olympic sports with no female competitions.

Which doesn’t mean women have never jumped. In 19th-century Norway, women ski jumpers were relatively common. In the 1920s, Frenchwoman Isabel Coursier jumped (in skirts) and became a sensation across Europe, often showing her skills at exhibitions. She was followed in the 1940s and 50s by the American Dorothy Graves. Still, none ever actually competed.

Today, despite a half-century of progress and women’s rights, things have improved only slightly for female ski jumpers. While at any time there may be 15 to 30 elite-class women jumping in the United States, many more have abandoned the sport over time, pressured by the real considerations of education, career and families – each a barrier to their self-subsidized amateur sporting crusades. Therefore, most women ski jumpers are young – between 11 and 25 years old – with their training, equipment and travel costs underwritten by parents and friends. And while a few have small sponsorships (Lindsey Van, for instance, gets free eyewear through an uncle), most must cobble together finances hand-to-mouth.

Still, things are evolving inside the sport. After much clambering, girl’s ski-jumping events were added to the Junior Olympics in 1996, and Finland is now establishing the first women’s ski jump team. There have also been North American Women’s Ski Jump Championships since 1995, and in February of 1998 the first Women’s World Junior Nordic Championships were held at St. Moritz, Switzerland, though officials from International Skiing Federation (FIS) were on hand to insist that the women’s jumping events were not sanctioned. Finally, while the Salt Lake Olympic Committee hopes to include women’s ski jumping as an event in the 2002 Olympics, the FIS and International Olympic Committee have yet to rule. “Beyond the lack of funding, the stumbling block right now is the low number of top-class contenders, “Says Larry Stone, a former U.S. National Team coach who now coaches jumpers – including his 15-year-old daughter, Molly – for the New York Ski Educational Foundation in Lake Placid. “The pool of good competitors needs to grow. Around the world, there are 30 or so women who can jump at the elite level – and they take it darned seriously. But the field has to be larger. I have no doubt more quality female athletes are coming – where was women’s ice hockey a decade ago) – but for these girls to get the respect they deserve, their numbers will have to rise.”

For most of the women jumpers, however, the wrangling to become more “legitimate” takes a far back seat to the simple joy of jumping itself. And no woman may have pursued the thrill of each jump more than Karla Keck of Oconomowoc, Wis. The daughter of Bob Keck, a U.S. Ski Team Jumper in the 1960s, Karla began jumping as a 5-year-old, after spending a few winters following her dad around the launch pads of the Midwest.

“I’ve pretty much always known this is what I wanted to do," the slight and friendly Keck says. “And what I like about it is how unique each jumping experience is. You produce your ride yourself. You have to believe in yourself, you have to conquer your fear and push out on every jump. It’s all on you.”

Having been increasingly frustrated in the United States, where she’d win events against boys only to be not included in the next competitive step up, she lit out on her own. At age 15, as a sophomore in high school, she’d committed to a life of competitive ski jumping – which essentially meant competing with European-based events against boys and men. Two years later, she was living the dream, training in Stams, Austria, at the famous Austrian Ski Academy, paying for her training herself. Seven years later, she still spends eight months a year over-seas, mostly in Austria and Norway, all of which she continues to underwrite.

“Women jumpers are taken slightly more seriously in Europe than in the United States,” she says. “And while you still get these little comments, ‘girls can’t do this, or shouldn’t do that,’ the tiny bit of extra acceptance you get over there opened a lot of doors for me. Which allowed others, like Lindsey to come inside.” 

To pay for her training, Keck spends her four off-training months each year working a triathlon of hourly-wage gigs at home in Wisconsin. She paints houses, embroiders T-shirts at a factory and closes the night shift at the local Pizza Hut – as well as doing her own physical training and coaching the local high-school freshmen women’s soccer team. Now 22, she is the seasoned veteran of American senior women’s ski jumping and has been considered No. 1 in the United States since 1991. Though she lost to Lindsey Van at 1998’s U.S. National Championships by a single style point after outdistancing Van, the defeat seems less a bitter loss than an extra layer of competitive fuel.

“Lindsey’s great, she’s awesome,” Keck says of Van. Keck often serves as Van’s guardian when the two travel and train in Europe during summers. “Lindsey’s got a lot of spirit. She’s a real competitor. I mean, she’s 13, and she’s making me watch my back. She’s making me a better jumper.”

Overseas, 18-year-old Austrian Eva Ganster is considered the top woman jumper, as well as Keck’s and Van’s toughest opponent and good friend. As a regular at Keck’s former training ground, the National Ski Academy in Stams, Ganster has had easier access to coaching, sponsorship dollars and equipment than her North American, Japanese or Scandinavian counterparts. In fact, at the U.S. Nationals last year, Ganster was the only jumper dressed in the warm-up suit of her national team. Because of her team position, she was also the first woman to hurtle into space off a 120-meter ski jump instead of the 90-meter “Women’s Normal” jump used in competition. Ganster was invited to do it at the opening ceremonies of the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer – though of course, only as an exhibition. Since then, Keck Can and a number of other women have taken to the 120-meter jump as well. 

“All the girls love the big hill,” says Keck, “but we need to get a few more of us competing on it before we can have a match.”

Currently Ganster holds the international women’s distance record with a jump of 113 meters – 370 feet. (The men’s record is 209 meters, off a 180-meter “ski flying” hill.)

Not all of ski jumping’s women are so gung ho. In Lake Placid, Molly Stone has adopted a measured approach to her future as a ski jumper. Despite winning the Women’s Nordic Combined at the 1998 U.S. Nationals at Steamboat Springs – as well as placing respectably in the Nationals, ski jumping – she’s holding back her thoughts on the future.

“I’m waiting to see how I do this year,” Stone says. “There are a lot of sports I like, a lot of things I’m interested in. I’ve got to start thinking about college, so I’m going to be patient. I’ll keep training and jumping. But it’s expensive and I want to see how things work out before I go for it completely. Time will tell.”

That’s a reserve Karla Keck understands and respects, while not embracing it herself. “Hey, don’t get me wrong,” Keck says, “there are days when I’ve had it with the whole thing. It’s expensive. It’s frustrating. I’ve fallen through every rules loophole that exists. But then there are days when you hit your jumps and you know jumping’s what you were meant to do. I don’t mind the training and the living inexpensively and working like crazy to make money in the off season – all to sometimes get slighted for just wanting to go out and play. It’s just like any pioneering sport. It’s turned me into a feminist. Which is sort of funny, because I didn’t start out that way.”

Keck chuckles. “I’m happy to see the acceptance coming, though, faster and faster. In Europe, they used to say to me: ‘You’re just doing this to meet boys.’ And I’d say, ‘Hey, there are far easier ways to meet boys.’ Nowadays they see women out there jumping and they know we’re serious about it. They don’t tease me anymore. Now they know.”

As the sun sets over Park City on this cool February Thursday, nobody may be as attuned to the challenges and demands of women’s ski jumping as Barry Van. “It costs me $20,000 a year to keep Lindsey in training,” he tells me as he follows his daughter toward their station wagon. “I’m forever asking clients for sponsorship help. Last summer, Lindsey and Karla went to Europe to train. They needed to go, because they have to jump with the best in the world so they can keep improving. But it cost a lot. Fortunately, some of my clients helped out. I’m really grateful to them.”

Still, Van says, he can’t imagine not allowing Lindsey to compete. “I remember the first time she tried it,” Van says. “She’d done downhill skiing and other winter sports, and she liked them OK. But one day we were here at the Sports Park and there was a promotion: for $5 you could jump off a little 10-meter jump. And Lindsey wanted to do it. She went up, jumped it a few times, and then skied over to her mother and me at the base of the jump and sprayed snow all over us. She said, ‘this is what I want to do, Mom and Dad. And I’m going to go to the Olympics.’ Everyone just smiled it off. But now ... you never know.”

Lindsey – whose slight self-consciousness around such talk is balanced against the giddy thrill of eluding the trash can – removes her sunglasses again, packs the inside of the lenses with snow, and puts the glasses back on, the snow pressing against her closed eyelids.

“I don’t do this to outdo the boys or anything,” she says. “I do it because I love it. I love the rush of each jump, the wind in my face.” (She may be so comfortable in the air because it’s where she comes from. Around Park City, Lindsey has the notoriety of being conceived one powder-shot morning in 1984 aboard one of the old gondola cars swaying high above the runs of the ski area.)

As they prepare to get into the car and drive to their house below the Winter Sports Park, where avenues have names like Tommy Moe Way and Picabo Street, it’s a sweet and pretty picture. Dad and daughter, full of pride they’ve built themselves and together, hustling home to meet Lindsey’s twin brother, Brandon, for supper and a night watching crash-laden men’s Olympic downhill from Nagano. One more thing, I wonder. What about the future? What about boys?

Lindsey scrapes the snow from inside her glasses, towing it to the parking lot’s pavement. “I’ll do this as long as I like it,” she says, drying the lens. “As long as I’m having fun.”

And the boys?

She pauses for a long second, letting the idea hang in the air. She shakes her head. “Nah,” she says, “not right now.”