KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia – As soon as Sarah Hendrickson took off Tuesday night and got into the “V” position, it symbolized a “V” for victory for female ski jumpers at the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games.
They had fought for 20 years to earn the right to compete at the Winter Games, even losing a lawsuit prior to the 2010 Vancouver Games.
Now their time had finally come to fly. Hendrickson was the first to launch from the normal hill in official Olympic competition at RusSki Gorki Ski Jumping Center.
“It’s an honor to open up the competition to these amazing 29 girls behind me,” Hendrickson said, “because I think we put on an awesome show tonight, and the world really saw what we’ve been working for.”
Carina Vogt of Germany made history by becoming the first woman to win a gold medal in the event. She scored 247.4 points, followed by Daniela Iraschko-Stolz of Austria (246.2) and Coline Mattel of France (245.2). Vogt had the longest first jump, 103 meters, then held on even though Iraschko-Stolz soared 104.5 meters on her second attempt.
Jessica Jerome led Team USA in 10th place with 234.1 points. Lindsey Van, the first women’s world champion (2009) in ski jumping, was 15th (227.2). Hendrickson, the 2013 world champ who came back from knee surgery last summer, finished 21st (217.6).
“We have arrived,” Jerome said. “We’re hard-working and we’re dedicated and we are good at what we do, and it’s a close competition. You’re not having one person beating everybody all the time by 30 points. It could be anybody’s game and there’s depth and it’s fun.
“We’re a lot prettier than the boy jumpers, too.”
The ski jump venue welcomed the women with just about every song imaginable with the word “girls” in the lyrics, as well the song “Volare.” Close to where they landed, organizers had placed the design of a palm tree to tie in the mountain event with the tropical coast in Sochi.
Although Jerome said she didn’t perform to the best of her ability, she said, “I’m still happy, strangely. I think everyone is. And all the girls from all the countries are just smiling.”
Jerome and Van had been two of the most visible proponents of their sport on the field of play and in the courtroom.
At age 29, Van was the second-oldest competitor in the field.
“I’m happy I stuck around and I didn’t ever think I would see this day,” she said. “So the fact that the Olympics have happened and I actually am at a high enough level that I can be here is… I impressed myself.”
Van called it the “best experience ever,” and said she was surprised she didn’t cry.
“I feel way better now and more relieved than I have my whole career,” she said. “It actually feels for the first time in my life that I’m living now and not talking about what I’m going to do.”
Hendrickson had worked assiduously to get back in shape after blowing out her knee in a crash. Because she had no world cup points, she was assigned bib No. 1 instead of starting late in the field with the favorites.
Hendrickson was also the first to take a test jump in a pre-competition round. That jump was better than the two that counted.
“It was kind of nice to know that in the back of my mind I remembered how to ski jump,” Hendrickson, 19, said. “I’ve only had 25 training jumps in the past six months. These other girls have had probably about 300 or 400. That gives me a peace of mind and gives me a little bit of confidence.”
Jerome, 27, said the women, many of them teenagers, exchanged a certain look at the start.
“There is a special camaraderie that all of us girls have, from all the countries,” she said. “I really felt it tonight. We were up there high-fiving with the Norwegians, the Finns and the Canadian girls. Everybody was just really glad to be sharing this with not only their competitors, but their friends — someone who gets what we’ve been trying to do.”
But their work is not done. The men have three events: normal hill, like the women, plus the large hill and a team event. The women are looking for equality on those fronts. And there’s still one sport with no women: Nordic combined, which includes ski jumping and cross-country skiing.
“I wish I had another competition, more days,” Van said, “but I guess we’ll have to wait.”