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Female Ski Jumpers Finally Make Their Olympic Debut

Lindsey Van trains in Sochi on Sunday. Van has spent the past decade fighting for female ski jumpers to be allowed to compete at the Olympics.
Lars Baron
Getty Images
Lindsey Van trains in Sochi on Sunday. Van has spent the past decade fighting for female ski jumpers to be allowed to compete at the Olympics.

Update at 4:15 p.m. ET: Leaping Into History

When American Sarah Hendrickson launched herself down the 90-meter jumping hill in Sochi, she flew into history, becoming the first woman to ski jump in Olympic competition. She ultimately finished in 21st place.

Sarah Hendrickson during a training event in Sochi on Sunday. Hendrickson suffered a devastating knee injury in August.
Michael Dalder / Reuters/Landov
Sarah Hendrickson during a training event in Sochi on Sunday. Hendrickson suffered a devastating knee injury in August.

Carina Vogt from Germany brought home the gold. Daniela Iraschko-Stolz of Austria took silver, and France's Coline Mattel, 18, won bronze.

The Americans were led by Jessica Jerome from Park City, Utah, who finished 10 th, and Lindsey Van in 15th. Van has been the public face of what was more than a decade-long fight to get the sport into the Olympics.

"You know I didn't ever think I would see this day," she said. "I impressed myself."

Here's what Jessica Jerome said after the event:

"I didn't perform to my best ability. But I'm still happy, strangely — I think everyone is. All the girls from all the countries are just smiling."

For a long time, prospective female jumpers were told their bodies couldn't handle it. For example, Van told me that in 2009, someone asked her if her uterus had fallen out due to the jumps.

The women are pushing to be able to compete on the large hill, where now only men are allowed in the Olympics.

Our original post:

For the American women's ski jumping team, just getting to Sochi is a huge accomplishment. The sport is making its Olympic debut Tuesday, in large part because of a decade of advocacy from jumpers Lindsey Van and Jessica Jerome. And for their teammate Sarah Hendrickson, simply being able to put on her skis and fly (even if it isn't as far as usual) is a minor miracle following a devastating knee injury in August.

By the time competition begins, Hendrickson will have taken 25 jumps on her newly reconstructed knee; compare that with more than 200 jumps for the other competitors. And most of Hendrickson's jumps have been at slower speeds, gingerly testing the strength of her knee while trying not to re-injure it. Before the injury she was a favorite to win a medal. Now, she's the ultimate underdog, with the shortest jumps of the whole field in practice this week.

"My coach is reminding me that it's a miracle that I'm even here, considering my injury, so I kind of have to step back and appreciate that, and know that if I don't walk away with a medal, it's still an accomplishment representing Team USA here," Hendrickson said after a recent training jump.

She was clearly disappointed with her results but said her coach was holding her back so she didn't hurt herself ahead of the competition. Her teammates express nothing but admiration for Hendrickson's effort to return.

"Now her biggest thing is just going to be to stay confident and know that she can have good jumps, and to have those good jumps," said Jerome.

Lindsey Van, who has come back from many injuries of her own over a 20-year ski jumping career, described what Hendrickson has just gone through as the hardest part of being an athlete. There's no fun in rehabbing an injury, she said — all of the work but with none of the fun of the sport.

"If you can dig yourself out of the depression hole that injury just made you, then you can do anything," said Van. "It's like going to work but actually just staring at your computer. And that's not comfortable."

For years, Van was the public face of the fight to get women's ski jumping into the Olympics. Although jumping for men has been in the games since the very first Winter Olympics, this will be the first time women have jumped. Van says she heard so many excuses over the years — including that the women's sport wasn't developed enough, and that women's bodies couldn't handle it.

"I had people ask me if my uterus had fallen out," said Van. And that comment, she said, came in 2009.

As she spoke to reporters after a practice jump, Van seemed relaxed.

"It's the first time in a long time where I can feel like l'm actually in the present moment. I'm not talking about the Olympics. I'm not talking about coming here. I'm not talking about the past," said Van. "And honestly, I feel a lot more relief than I thought I would. It's just, there's nothing to wait for anymore. I'm here, and it feels good."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.
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