Women’s ski jump team prepping for Olympic media onslaught
By Christopher Kamrani
The Salt Lake TribuneFirst published Jul 06 2013 04:39PM
Park City • Like so many athletes, they answer the same questions over and over and over again. They pose in various photo shoots that run for hours on end. They must pretend to not notice the nosy video crews documenting their every move.
New York Times Magazine flew into Park City a photographer whose popular work includes profile photos of P. Diddy, Katy Perry and Clint Eastwood.
The increasing media attention and expectations that no doubt will continue to rise are a direct correlation to the fight they put up. All the times they heard "no," they battled to make sure one day they’d hear "yes."
The five senior members of the VISA Women’s Ski Jumping Team, all of whom hail from Park City, became the unified voice of injustice, of a battle for inclusion and equality.
Their fight became the world’s eventual conquest when the International Olympic Committee accepted in April 2011 women’s ski jumping as an official sport in the Winter Olympiad after years of inequality.
"In every competition I feel like we’re still trying to prove that we deserve to be there, that we deserve to be on the world stage," jumper Abby Hughes said.
It’s still there, still heated on the back burner, the once seemingly endless and fruitless venture for a chance to be called potential Olympians. But the 2014 Olympic Winter Games in Sochi, Russia, are around the corner — it’s seven months to the Opening Ceremony in early February — and the ski jumpers will be there.
"Sometimes I’m laying in bed and I want that feeling of walking into the Opening Ceremony and the feeling that I’m representing my country so bad," 2013 world champion Sarah Hendrickson said. "That’s the goal. That’s what you strive for every day."
Striving is one thing, dominating is another. That’s what the five U.S. members have done in the last two years. They’ve won consecutive overall team championships, headlined by Hendrickson, the 18-year-old phenom.
Jumper Lindsey Van, who won World Championship gold in 2009, said for the first time in a long time she’s ready to put aside the politics that hovered over the sport and focus on the real fight: one that could end in gold.
"I’ve been jumping for almost 22 years now, so to finally be able to have the chance to compete in the Olympics is pretty damn cool," she said. "We’ve worked a long time, and it’s kind of time to enjoy the ride."
It’ll be tough.
They’re going to be the favorites to not only win gold, but also possibly have more than one person donning the American flag on the podium when the inaugural women’s ski jumping competition concludes.
And there has been a familiar message from people around the globe that rightfully has gotten the attention of the five athletes.
The message has been that this is their Games, that their refusal to accept nothing but inclusion will be magnified by the media leading up to the Games and throughout. If there was any validity to those rumblings, they somewhat were cemented when NBC Nightly News followed around Hendrickson for two days for a special that will air during the Sochi Games.
"I know it’s part of the game, but it might be slightly irksome at times," jumper Jessica Jerome said about the attention. "You have to make it part of the grind. We’re not used to that part. We’re at the point where we’re getting used to it."
It’s hard to comprehend. From June through Oct. 1, the team was booked solid for every allotted media time.
"It’s a lot," jumper Alissa Johnson said. "It’s just a lot."
Domestic coach Alan Alborn knows it, too. He and fellow coach Paolo Bernardi signed on with the program after the team was accepted for 2014. The pair have the luxury of coaching a motivated handful of women, top-flight athletes who currently rule their competitive realm.
"When I joined the organization, someone asked me early on what I thought of the team, and I described them as a bunch of diamonds covered in dirt," Alborn said. "Needed to just clean them up and get them refocused."
Each jumper, along with Alborn, said the focus always has been to simplify. It could be easy to get caught up in the hype, to willingly open up to the hullabaloo of the Games and what they did. Alborn said the biggest need is to clarify the line between drama and athletics.
"This whole journey, this whole fight wasn’t just the athletes — it goes so much deeper than that," Jerome said. "It goes to friends and parents and family members and sponsors and donors and fans. It’s just so far-reaching."
It’s a special situation for a special team. They’ve already had a documentary air about their struggles for Olympic inclusion. They’ve been tabbed by some as the "Fab 5" of the Sochi Games like the popularized group of U.S. gymnasts who won gold in London last summer.
As Van said, they’re a collection of five "extremely different personalities" who are together for essentially 11 months out of the year. There are times when they’re cramped in small rental cars and ensure the hotel-room carousel keeps spinning, so the team chemistry stays high and doesn’t get stale.
"Our individual successes are team successes," Johnson said.
But there is an inevitable issue that awaits the family of ski jumpers. There are four designated spots for the Americans in Sochi, but five senior members and other youngsters who could force their way onto the Olympic team with a strong showing this winter.
It’s yet another battle they must endure.
"Doing it," Hughes said, "is about all we can do."