Hans Pennink / AP
American women have helped lead the international fight to include women’s ski jumping at the Winter Olympics, and the US team has already been ranked No.1 in the world.
But in a blow to the program, the American women failed to collect enough points in qualifying competitions to send athletes to the Beijing games.
“It’s disappointing because we all want to be Olympians,” said Anna Hoffmann, 21, who won the US women’s ski jumping events last month in Lake Placid, NY.
Hoffmann said the American women, who have competed under the umbrella of USA Nordic Sport since 2017, are in a period of rebuilding after seeing many of their veteran athletes retire after the Olympic Winter Games in 2018.
“We are a growing team and we are more focused on the long term,” she said after it became clear that she would not be going to Beijing.
Bill Demong, an Olympic gold medalist who runs USA Nordic, told NPR that American women lag behind the competitive standards set by women in Germany, Japan and Norway.
“When I wonder whether or not we send a woman to these games [in Beijing], athletically we are not quite ready but anyway, ”Demon said.
He said the U.S. women’s show jumping program has stabilized and improved since it merged with his organization four years ago.
“We have a very focused national organization that works with thirty clubs across the country, from Alaska to New Hampshire, developing everything on a level playing field.”
A long fight, and now a disappointment
But for the American ski jumpers who helped lead the fight to compete in the Olympics, this moment is painful.
“It consumed everything,” said Jessica Jerome, who finished 10th at the Sochi Olympics in 2014, the first winter games where women competed.
Beginning in the early 2000s, Jerome’s family and other supporters concocted what she describes as a “motley” effort to champion gender equality and inclusion at the Olympics.
“My mom was pissed off because… I couldn’t do what the guys did,” she said. “My dad went to buy a nonprofit book for Dummies.”
Working from their kitchen tables, the athletes and their parents formed a ski jumping team that began to compete around the world.
At the same time, they lobbied sports organizations and joined in the lawsuits demanding a place in the Winter Olympics.
“Not … medically appropriate for women”
Opposition to their grassroots efforts was fierce in those early days, especially among powerful sports officials in Europe who insisted that the female jumpers were not good enough for the Olympics.
“If you have a field now with women’s competitions with say thirty girls, [only] 4 or 5 of them really jump, “said Gian Franco Kaspar, then head of the International Ski Federation.
In a 2005 interview with NPR and North Country Public Radio, Kaspar – who died last summer – argued that women were too fragile to take the big leaps.
“Remember, it’s like jumping on the ground about a thousand times a year,” Kaspar said. “Which does not appear to be medically suitable for women.”
But Jerome and other women in the United States and around the world have continued to lobby and file lawsuits. They also continued to jump, and the Americans continued to improve, placing the world number one in competitions in 2012.
A breakthrough in 2014: “All the girls … just smile.”
Then, in 2014, women were finally allowed to compete in the show jumping events at the Sochi Winter Games. Speaking to NPR after her last jump that year, Jerome said “every girl in every country is just smiling.”
Women ski jumpers say they still don’t have full equality. There are fewer show jumping events for women and fewer women are allowed to compete.
Yet the United States again qualified three women for the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics.
Since then, the team has been fighting. In the past 12 months of qualifying events around the world, the team has failed to earn a spot for a single athlete in Beijing.
Jerome believes the organization that was formed to support female jumpers in their bid for inclusion has failed to shift towards recruiting and training young athletes.
“There was so much attention to achieving that end goal which was the Olympics that once we got there everyone was tired,” she said.
Jerome believes the new generation of American jumpers includes talented athletes, but they haven’t kept up with the women in Germany, Japan and Norway.
“They just aren’t at the level of the Olympics. It just keeps getting better and better.”
Catching up will not be easy. Teams from other countries benefit from better fundraising, more media exposure and public support.
Bill Demong, director of USA Nordic, admitted that finding the money to support women jumpers and take them to the next level will be even more difficult now that they are on the sidelines in Beijing.
If there is any consolation for American women who fought to open the Winter Olympics, it is the belief that their team will eventually rebuild themselves.
They will also attend a competition in Beijing which is expected to include the best female ski jumpers of all time, a sign that the sport is building its strength.
“You know, we were kind of this motley bunch of girls [from all over the world] to whom we constantly said no, ”said Jérôme.
“So when I watch the Olympics this year, I’m always going to see my friends there. Unfortunately, they won’t be any of my American friends.”