Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Girls Fly for the first time in Russia


First Flying Females

We watched our tour guide casually hop over a barricade and stand with his heels on the brink, very much alone. Behind him, the ground dropped away and the magnificent Wasatch Mountains spread across the horizon. The wind whipped frozen snowflakes into our eyes and into our gaping mouths. The view from the top of the Olympic ski jump in Park City, Utah is breathtaking from the platform. At the very edge of the steeply sloping strip, where the jumpers perch in preparation for their 60 mph catapult run from track to air to landing, the view actually takes your breath away. As we stamped our feet to keep warm, I could not stop wondering, “why would anyone in his or her right mind voluntarily do this?”

The 2014 winter Olympic games, opening in Russia this week, will be history-making as the very first female ski jumpers will be allowed to compete. This is not for lack of wanting to compete in previous games, nor for a lack of trying to compete on an Olympic level. When the winter Olympics became gender inclusive in 1991, (yes, you read that right) the 1924 inaugural events, including ski jumping, were not included. Some old timers even went so far as to suggest that ski jumping could damage a woman’s reproductive organs. And here I am so naïve, it never occurred to me that there was not a women’s event. I thought I just hadn’t caught it on TV.

This is not to say that women have not been ski jumping for more than a century and competing globally in the past decade. The American team, boasts the 2013 World Cup champion and brings impressive credentials to the Sochi games. I can’t wait to see how they compare to their male counterparts. According to the official Women’s Ski Jumping website, the women will only compete in one of three possible events: the 90-meter normal hill jump. Interestingly, just before the 2010 games in Vancouver, American Lindsey Van held a Vancouver K95 record of 105.5 meters for both men and women. That distance would have earned her a podium spot in the men’s competition that year. Instead, she joined a dozen current and former female jumpers in a lawsuit that eventually gave her the right to do this officially in 2014.

In January we visited the Olympic Park, built just outside of Park City in 2002 for the games hosted by the US. Along with our tour, we saw current qualifying action in the luge, bobsled, skeleton and freestyle skiing. Most of these sports share terrifying speed, little physical protection, and contact with frozen surfaces that defy common sense. And yet, these athletes are just so enthusiastic about their sports. We were enjoying a hot drink and mulling aloud, these aspects of winter sport, when a woman sitting nearby joined the conversation. A former Olympian herself, she is the coach of the women’s bobsled team. She looked pretty sane to me and very kindly explained the mechanics of successfully piloting the 2-person bullet-shaped sleds. Speed and subtlety are key components. A tiny shift in weight can send the dual runners beneath the sled in the wrong direction. She explained that the skeleton is a sled sport where single competitors lie on their stomachs, head up, much like we do as children on a gloriously snow covered hill. The luge is also a flat sled but with the opposite technique: single competitors lie on their backs, unable to see where they are going. All of these events go careening down the same ice-covered tube, which is carefully tended by hand with paint brushes and water. There is no Zamboni to smooth out the ice surface like in hockey. Thank God they all wear helmets.

So, how do these brave ski jumpers get their start? I guess it is like anything else, you just see someone else doing it and think, “I can do that, it might be fun.” Most American jumpers hail from Park City and Lake Placid, NY, both sites of winter Olympic games. They usually start between ages 5 and 8 and work their way up from 10, 20, and 40-meter hills to the 90-meter competition runs. Youngsters and female jumpers have historically done what is called “forejumping,” where they take the jump just before an official competition to determine the effects of wind, temperature and weather. Our guide laughingly calls them guinea pigs, adding that it is a privilege and the last step before becoming a competitor.

Like most Olympic athletes, ski jumpers train year round. In Utah, they do their summer jumps on the same winter runs with the ice being replaced by ceramic tracks and grass-like hills. They fly, with the classic V-shape of their skis, bodies bent slightly forward, arms just away from their sides. Instead of landing in a telemark on snow, with one leg ahead of the other, knees bent, the summer jumpers land in a large pool of water. They get the same height, no more than 15 feet above the ground, and claim the same distance thanks to the laws of physics. The facility runs clinics for ordinary folks who want to give this a try, sans ice. You see mostly photos of children doing this, big smiles and dripping hair in each shot.

One of the toughest challenges, our new coach friend told us, is not so much a physical one but is difficult nonetheless: raising funds to keep the training going year round and between competitions. When watching the athletes on TV at the Olympic games, it is easy to forget that these are people who have jobs, families, and lives off of their skis, skates and sleds. “It is truly passion and love for the sport that keeps us all going,” she says smiling.

We stood at the base of the freestyle ski hill watching the young competitors practice. Their coach stood in the middle of the hill with a walkie talkie and we could hear her encourage each one, giving criticism here and there. Each young skier soared through the air, landed with determination and trudged over to the lift to ride back to the top to do it again. And again. We left that day with a deep appreciation for the vast preparation required for that penultimate 10-second jump.

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