PARK CITY, Utah – Not since the 2002 Olympic Winter Games had so many ski jumping fans flocked to the base of the jumps at the Utah Olympic Park as they did on Sunday for the 2014 U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Ski Jumping. With one men’s berth for Sochi on the line, and the first women’s Olympic ski jumping team nomination at stake, excitement ran high.
The women’s event was of particular interest, as four of the seven women in the field had been jumping for at least a decade and had spent the past three Games watching other women’s sports introduced to the roster (i.e. bobsled in 2002, snowboardcross in 2006 and skicross in 2010) while they fought for Olympic inclusion on the sidelines and in court.
It was hard, therefore, not to flash back before looking forward.
In 2002, Jessica Jerome was actually at the Salt Lake City Games, at the top of the jump, in her ski jumping gear, along with Lindsey Van. The teenagers were planning to forejump the men’s medal competition along with several boys. When officials found out there were girls on the inrun, they balked.
“Some of the officials were kind of annoyed,” Jerome recalled. “For some reason, they thought we were less experienced, less serious and less disciplined about it than everybody else. I guess they ended up telling one of my coaches, ‘Listen, we’re watching these girls and if they mess up, they’re done.’ So Lindsey and I were on our best behavior and we jumped alright. We had a blast.”
Meanwhile, back in tiny Andover, N.H. (population 2,109), 12-year-old Nick Fairall was watching the 2002 Games, six years after he had followed his sister into the sport. His sister had no national team aspirations back then because the women’s team didn’t exist.
What a difference a decade makes.
|(L-R) Alissa Johnson (third), Jessica Jerome (first) and Lindsey Van
(second) pose for a photo on the podium at the 2014 U.S. Olympic
Team Trials for Ski Jumping at Utah Olympic Park on
Dec. 29, 2013 in Park City, Utah.
On Sunday, Jerome won both of her jumps — outscoring the runner-up Van by two points — and will forever be known as the first woman to be nominated to the first U.S. Olympic Women’s Ski Jumping Team.
“Both of my parents are crying at the same time right now, and I don’t think that’s ever happened — or not that I’ve seen,” Jerome said.
Van, 29, the 2009 world champion, said, “I did ‘super medium’ today. But it was fun. It’s cool to see everybody here. I can’t complain. I’m happy for Jessica.”
So, too, was Sarah Hendrickson, the 2013 world champion who has been sidelined since Aug. 21 with a torn ACL, MCL and severely damaged meniscus in her right knee. Hendrickson was on-site providing commentary and expressed her congratulations over the P.A. system.
Alissa Johnson placed third. Abby Hughes finished fourth.
After being at the forefront of the movement to get women’s ski jumping into the Games for so long, Jerome was also enjoying opportunity to finally be an athlete instead of an advocate for the sport.
“If anything, [winning trials] gives me a little more room to breathe and sleep a little better at night,” she said. “But I still have to get back to training.”
Winning a medal in Sochi will be tough. Sara Takanashi of Japan has won eight of the last 10 world cup events she entered (and placed second in the other two).
“The girl jumpers are getting stronger every year and everyone’s really close,” Jerome said. “There aren’t many wild cards. I have to work hard every day.”
In two weeks, the U.S. women’s squad will return to international competition in Japan. Hendrickson hopes to be on snow by then, and Van looks forward to gaining some consistency so she may join Jerome in Sochi.
The rest of the U.S. Olympic Team will be named on Jan. 22.
Until then, Jerome said, “I can’t wait to realize my dream. It’s definitely a feel-good story with a happy ending.”
On the men’s side, Fairall also won both of his jumps in his Olympic trials debut to earn a nomination to the men’s team for Sochi.
Two-time Olympian Anders Johnson (Alissa’s younger brother) placed second. Vancouver 2010 Olympian Peter Frenette placed third.
While Fairall was hoisted on the shoulders of two men he had just beaten, Johnson said, “I’m definitely not surprised. Nick’s been jumping well for the last year and a half. He definitely deserves this. Nick was, in my opinion, the favorite going in.”
By the time Fairall, 24, made his way to the reporters’ pen, he was still beaming.
“This is excellent!” he said, fidgeting with the bindings on a pair of red skis that extended far above his 5-foot-11 frame.
“But I’m more excited with the crowd here,” Fairall said. “We could hear them up top, and we could hear them on the outrun.
“I’m very proud,” Fairall added. “This is a great opportunity. I just have to work hard, keep [my] head up, and stay focused.”
Aimee Berg is a freelance contributor for TeamUSA.org. This story was not subject to the approval of the United States Olympic Committee or any National Governing Bodies.