Families show historic support
PARK CITY, Utah -- Miranda Van sat at the table, staring up at the television, the party quite literally happening around her.
More than 6,300 miles from the RusSki Gorki Jumping Center in Sochi, Russia, a local Park City brew pub was brimming Tuesday morning, more than 100 people squeezed into a room meant for something closer to 65.
They poured into the room wearing red, white and blue, more than a few with cowbells around their necks. They mingled, smiled and hugged among the flags and decorations, and grabbed a few slices of pizza as the restaurant staff brought in more chairs to seat the overflow crowd in front of the big screen showing the first-ever Olympic women's ski jumping competition.
"I can't believe today is really the day," said Robbie Beck, the executive director of U.S. Women's Ski Jumping, who organized the viewing party for the friends, family, supporters and sponsors of the three U.S. athletes in Sochi to compete in Tuesday's historic event.
Beck found herself awake at 2 a.m., talking with the team's press rep by phone from Sochi, both of them giddy with excitement.
"So many people worked so long and so hard for this and here it is," Beck said. "It's a little surreal."
Miranda Van slept a little longer than Beck. She made it to 5 a.m.
The mother of U.S. jumper Lindsey Van was visibly nervous from the moment she entered the restaurant. She got teary before the competition and grabbed a small pack of tissues out of the basket full of them, labeled "For Tears of Joy, Go USA!"
A local television reporter maneuvered her in front of a large photo of the five women who make up the U.S. team (three of the five qualified for the Olympics) and patted her back as they did an on-camera interview. Van then squeezed through the crowd back to her seat in front of the television. She put a pair of American flags in her hair and prepared to start a day that has been years -- and countless occasions of heartbreak, frustration and ultimately triumph -- in the making.
Lindsey Van was one of the leaders in the fight to get women's ski jumping into the Olympic program. She and teammate Jessica Jerome (along with 13 other jumpers) put their names on a lawsuit against the IOC in 2010. Jerome's father, Peter, helped raise money for the U.S. team.
In 2011, the IOC relented and put women's ski jumping on the slate for 2014. So Miranda Van, surrounded by cameras and well-wishers, couldn't take her eyes off the screen as her daughter moved into position on the ramp.
The competition in Sochi began a little while before the party in Park City, first-round jump results popping up on Twitter before the broadcast of the final round came onto the big screen and the other televisions in the room.
But as the sight of the American jumpers flashed on the television screens, the Park City crowd cheered and rang its cowbells.
Van's friends, seated at the same long table as her mother, kept checking the standings online on their phones.
Berit Tomten used to jump with Van. They competed together in their first international event in 1995 when they were just 11. Tomten said both of them hoped they would get their chance to jump in 2002 when the Winter Games were held in Salt Lake City. They were 17 then.
"After I found out that wasn't going to be it, that was the end for me," said Tomten, whose sister Blair accompanied Van to Sochi.
Vanessa Pierce chatted with Van on Facebook on Monday.
"She's very much in the present, no matter what happens," Pierce said. "She just looks happy, she's soaking it in."
The whole event, which was more than a decade in the making, was over in less than an hour.
The three American jumpers finished out of the medals -- Jerome finishing 10th, Van 15th and Sarah Hendrickson 21st. But the finish didn't diminish the happy ending.
"This is a whole new era now for women's ski jumping," said Scott Hendrickson, grandfather of Sarah. "Hopefully, watching this on television will inspire young girls to get into the program."
When the competition ended, Beck turned on a video that included messages from all three women recorded in Sochi, thanking all of their supporters back home.
And Miranda Van was wiping tears away again.
"I'm relieved," she said, exhaling. "I wish she had done a little better, but she's been jumping for 22 years. She's tired."
Barry Van choked up a little when talking about the support his daughter and her fellow competitors have received in Park City, community members literally writing checks to help make this day possible. "This could not have happened without Park City," Barry Van said.
He said that when his daughter began jumping at the age of 7, she told him right away that she wanted to be in the Olympics.
"She didn't know that there was no event for her," he said. "She's leaving her sport better than she found it. That's all you can do. It's a much better sport now and I hope the other girls realized that. She battled for this, put her neck out on the line. She's gone through hell for this and she's paid for it."
Barry Van confessed he was hoping for a better finish from his daughter and the other U.S. competitors, but there is "more work to do." The next fight, he said, is to get two more events included in the Olympic program -- the 120-meter jump and the team jumping competition, both of which are contested on the men's side.
"They are going to learn a lot from this and press on," he said.
But there will never be another day quite like Tuesday.