Park City • For just the briefest moment, the splittest of seconds, ski jumper Jessica Jerome feared she might have blown it.
But just as fast as it came, the nightmare thought raced from her mind as she skied to a stop after her final jump of the U.S. Olympic Trials on Sunday, chased off by an avalanche of thunderous applause at the Utah Olympic Park that foretold what the marks on the scoreboard soon would confirm — that the 26-year-old Park City pioneer is going to the 2014 Sochi Olympics in Russia.
“It feels like I can breathe, actually,” she said later, beaming.
Of course it does.
Jerome is the first American woman to qualify for an Olympics in ski jumping, after helping spearhead an agonizing eight-year fight to get the International Olympic Committee to allow women to compete in the sport at the Olympics.
She had been holding her breath and dreaming of this moment since she was a forerunner for the men at the 2002 Salt Lake Olympics ... since her parents founded an organization to support the women and battle the IOC … since she went to court to try to force the IOC to let her compete at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics … and since she learned back in 2011 that women finally — finally! — would be allowed to compete alongside the men.
“Both my parents are crying at the same time right now, and that hasn’t happened I don’t think ever,” Jerome said.
“I was always saying, when we were doing all that court stuff and trying to be advocates for the sport, all I wanted to do was train,” she added. “And in retrospect, of course, it was a good thing that we were doing and I’m happy that we did that. But all I ever wanted to do was just be an athlete.”
As an athlete, Jerome beat out former world champion Lindsey Van for the only Olympic berth on the line — Nick Fairall of New Hampshire won the men’s competition — by scoring 248.5 points over two jumps on a glorious blue-sky day, compared to 246.5 for Van, who was battling a back injury.
“I tried not to think about the historic nature of it today,” Van said. “I tried to focus on my jumps and not put too much pressure on myself.”
After all, Van still figures to reach Sochi.
The Americans can earn as many as three more spots at the Olympics, depending on their international results over the next few weeks, and they’re the strongest team in the world. The top five women are all from Park City, and all played a role in their historic struggle.
All of them also witnessed just how much their story has resonated within their community.
Thousands of fans showed up for the event — officials put attendance at about 5,000 — far more than for any event at the park since the 2002 Olympics.
Traffic and parking plans were overwhelmed by the unexpected surge, and scores of fans scrambled up the side of the snowy mountain as a shortcut to the venue, after walking more than a mile up the road from parking lots beyond the roundabout just off Highway 224 at the bottom of the hill.
“It was really fun to kind of come out and celebrate how long we’ve been fighting to get here,” said Alissa Johnson, who finished third with 240 points. “I can’t believe how many people showed up and how loud it was. … It was a lot of fun. We felt a lot of love, so it meant a lot.”
Defending world champion Sarah Hendrickson did not compete as she works to come back from a knee injury suffered four months ago, and she did not speak to reporters about her recovery.
But she did man the public-address microphone for a bit, while former Salt Lake City mayor DeeDee Corradini fought back tears as she recalled how much Jerome and Van, in particular, have dedicated to their fight.
The first plaintiffs in the court challenge in Canada that ultimately failed, they were the ones who persuaded other jumpers from around the world to join their fight, even though they were “scared to death” that they’d be punished somehow for pushing the IOC.
“The emotional toll on them was huge,” said Corradini, the president of Women’s Ski Jumping USA, the advocacy group that Jerome’s parents started years ago.
“The day that we found out that the women would jump in 2014 was more of a day of relief after an eight-year struggle to get the women into the Olympics,” she added. “Today, it’s excitement. It’s real. We’ve been waiting for this day for 12 years. I get teary thinking about it. … It’s worth every minute of the emotional roller coaster we’ve been through.”
Jerome certainly thought so, too.
Scanning the screaming fans who waved flags and rang cowbells, she said she was relieved to have her spot locked up so she can focus on training over the next month, rather than qualifying for the Olympics. But still, the idea that she’s going to Sochi is going to take some getting used to.
“Honestly, I don’t know if I’ve wrapped my head around it yet,” she said. “It’s just … it sounds cliché, but it is a dream come true. And I can’t wait to go and represent my country.”