Ski jumpers share unique bond

PARK CITY, Utah -- Their bond is largely unspoken and practically as old as they are, and the best female ski jumpers in this country are still too immersed in competition to be sentimental about it. What they share germinated organically in the '90s in this winter sports oasis in the mountains above Salt Lake City. It probably couldn't have happened anywhere else.

They grew up in a place where the grade schools let out at 12:30 every Friday and kids piled into buses to ski or snowboard or jump. They had parents who were coaches or instructors or, at the very least, avid skiers themselves. Their older brothers led them up the hill and their younger brothers followed them. There was no distinction between what the boys and girls were told they could do.

Lindsey Van and Jessica Jerome were forejumpers when the Winter Olympic Games came to their hometown in 2002. They were thrilled to be part of it, and at ages 17 and 15, respectively, they didn't dwell very long on why they were good enough to test the hill for the men but not good enough to compete.

There would be time for that later. Four years later, to be exact, when the team huddled in a hotel after an event in Germany to watch the Opening Ceremonies of the 2006 Torino Games and faced the reality of being elite athletes who might never get to walk that walk.

That was when the fight to add women's ski jumping to the Olympic program amped up. Most of the time, it felt more draining than noble. The stress drove Van, the 2009 world champion and an articulate but reluctant spokeswoman, to flee for a season.

Van is the one who ground her knuckles into her teary eyes outside the courtroom where the jumpers' lawsuit against the organizers of the Vancouver Games failed to unlock the gates. She is the one whose mouth curled into a knowing snarl as she listened to the International Olympic Committee announce that the women would have to audition for Olympic status, proving they had sufficient depth and international diversity at their own world championships. It was a public test other sports have not had to pass.

"It was a lot of stress, it was not awesome, and I'm glad I don't have to do it again," Van, 29, said in late August. "Part of it was a selfish way of being able to keep ski jumping, keeping those doors open to create opportunities for me and the younger generation.

"I thought it would never happen in my time. I was convinced they would keep saying no."

But the IOC said yes in 2011, in time for Van to make a run at the Olympics -- and at a time when a Park City girl a decade younger had soared to the top of the sport. Van coached Sarah Hendrickson the summer Hendrickson turned 12 and calls her "Kid." She told Hendrickson's mother that Sarah would be a world champion someday. In a photo of the moment last February when that came to be, Hendrickson's back is to the camera and Van is leading the team's rush toward her, her face so fiercely lit with joy that it's unclear who actually won.

A training accident and extensive knee surgery last week have made Hendrickson's prospects of competing in Sochi appear precarious. But even without her, the U.S. athlete pool should get sharper over the next few months thanks to keen internal competition among at least half a dozen women who will vie for four Olympic slots.

The four veterans are proven international competitors. And they all incubated with the same limitless view, the one that includes the hills they now train on.

"It happened right here," Barb Jerome says, pointing to the granite-topped island in her kitchen, remembering the 7-year-old with the slight lisp who sat where her 26-year-old daughter is sitting.

"She jumps up on this stool, she puts down this flyer and says, 'Mommy, I want to ski jump.' I had no clue what she was talking about. I said, 'What do you mean? You mean go to the resort, get some air, hit some moguls or something? We can do that this weekend.' She said, 'No, I want to ski jump.'

"I'm looking at this flyer and I say, 'Are you talking about those big jumps that we drive by?' And she said, 'Yeah.' And I said, 'No.'

"'But I want to.'

"'No, you're not going to do that. There's no way.'

"Then she said, 'Well, Mom, it's only $60 for five weeks and it's after school on Friday.'

"And I'm thinking to myself, 'Wow, that's a pretty sweet deal. It can't be that bad.' So I said, 'All right, you can try it.'"

The jumpers begin their day in the modest gray house that serves as headquarters for the men's, women's and Nordic Combined teams at the foot of the ski jumps at Utah Olympic Park. They dress in a room just about big enough to accommodate three of them at once and walk past scuffed white walls and battered maroon metal lockers to stretch outside under the shade of a canvas tarp.

One by one, the jumpers step up on an 18-inch stool and settle their sneakers onto heel blocks that mimic the raised angle of their ski boot. They crouch, folding their midsections against their quadriceps, and extend their arms by their sides behind them, elbows and palms offered to the sky. Ski jumping head coach Alan Alborn stands in front of them, his hands resting lightly just over their knees. "Quiet arms," Alborn says. "Relax the hips."

They spring up and out as the coach's hands shift to support their hip bones, holding them aloft, parallel to the ground. He takes two steps backward and three steps forward as they hold their in-flight position, then sets them back on the stool.

Crouch. Spring. Hold still. Repeat. The plyometric move is called an "imitation lift," and it's the best way to warm up the core for that smooth yet explosive takeoff off the in-run ramp into space.

The training group includes the four Park City products -- Van, Jerome, Abby Hughes and Alissa Johnson -- and two rapidly improving younger athletes, Nina Lussi and Nita Englund, who are from Lake Placid and Wisconsin, respectively. After a half-dozen imitation lifts, they walk back to their dressing room and pull jump suits over their legs, leaving them unzipped to the waist. They slide into their boots, hoist their skis on their shoulders and take a necessarily awkward duck-footed heel-to-toe stroll to the chair lift, the empty arms of their suits flapping randomly at their sides.

The suits have the spongy feel of a yoga mat and are too warm to wear for long in the August heat. They're also expensive -- $400 to $500 a pop -- and only last a few jumps in competition before the material compresses and loses the air permeability required by international regulations designed to prevent a balloon effect. Jumpers sometimes use a sewing needle to poke hundreds of holes in their suits to make them legal again.

It's an ideal day for summer jumping, with temperatures in the low 70s, an overcast sky and a light intermittent headwind. Heat and the resulting thicker air pressure are the jumper's enemies. So are tailwinds, which push them down when they fly off the ramp, carving distance off their landings. Headwinds lift and carry them if they're in proper position.

The in-run ramp is porcelain, with water from sprinklers sluicing down the tracks to give it the slippery feel of ice. The landing area is carpeted with layers of stringy synthetic fringe that meets the skis like snow.

At the top of the 90-meter hill -- without the lift, it's a climb up 241 of those toothy metal steps that are a staple of winter playgrounds -- there is little chit-chat as the women sit on benches alongside the in-run ramp. They slide themselves sideways to a hinged metal bar that looks like the safety device on a roller-coaster car, except that the women ease it down with a clang and sit on it. They grip the bar, straighten their arms, push off and lower into their crouch.

The clatter of their onrushing skis in the tracks gives way to a fraction of silence, followed by a mini-turbo roar as woman and skis go airborne over the curving knoll of the hill, legs in the classic V, riding and resisting the currents simultaneously. Dori Schmalzle, a nurse and former ski instructor whose daughter Abby began jumping at age 7, has never gotten over the sound. "That's my baby doing that," she said.

They all love to talk about the way it feels to center their weight just behind the balls of their feet and swoop down the hill into space, doing something the rest of the world only does in its dreams.

Johnson, whose father Alan is a longtime elite-level coach and administrator, vividly remembers the sunny fall day when she was 14 and had her first true sensation of liftoff.

"I think I got it a little later than everyone else did, that 'aha' moment," she said. "You go from being a club jumper, jumping totally safe, to looking like an actual ski jumper, more forward on top of your skis. It happens and that second it happens, you never go back to what you were before.

"Your brain is like, 'This is stupid, why am I doing this? I'm going 60 miles per hour, and I'm launching forward into the air and trying to jump as far as I can and then land safely.' Your body and brain are fighting over it the whole entire time, the part where you're actually laid out over your skis, flying."

Abby Hughes is afraid of heights viewed from a glassed-in observation deck or a low railing. The thought of going to the top of the Willis Tower makes her shudder. But she conquered her phobia to follow her older brother Blake into jumping, and has always felt in control there.

"On the 20-meter hill or the 40-meter hill, you're up and you're down," she said, her hand chopping the air quickly.

Then came a day when she started higher and stayed up longer.

"Flight." Hughes gives an inhaling whoosh.

"You can have a hundred bad jumps in a row and get as frustrated as hell and have that one good jump and you're like, 'I'm gonna do whatever it takes for me to get that one jump again. I want that. I want to feel my skis here, want to feel my body lift over the knoll, I want to feel myself carry,'" she said. "You get that and you want to get it again. It's like a drug."

The whole jump from push-off to landing takes eight to 10 seconds. Jumpers usually don't get more than 12 feet off the ground, but they know as much intuitively about the airflow around them as any aerospace engineer.

Alborn, a three-time Olympian himself, stands on a platform level with the "lip," the 10-degree negative slope at the end of the in-run. He's balancing a radio and an iPad, swinging the latter from left to right to film each jump. The women check in with him on landing.

His radio crackles with Van's distinctive low voice. "Alan, Lindsey."

"Lindsey, that was a really solid jump. There's a little bit of headwind, a meter and a half, maybe two? But overall, really good push and skis working together going away from the hill," Alborn says. His tone is calm, deliberate.

"I feel a little funny actually, my balance moving back and forth, but I felt like I got pretty good push-down, a little late and fast but it's all right," Van says.

Johnson is next, adjusting to new boots.

"In-run position looks really on top," Alborn tells her. "Just a little bit of hesitation from the takeoff, waiting a little to see how those boots are gonna react ... A little more confident, so drive it all that all way over the legs, long over the knoll."

When Jerome reports in, Alborn says, "A little aggressive right at the end. The start of it was really good, just got a little ahead of yourself. So, feet parallel for the first 10, 15 meters and stay in balance so you can go up and away from the knoll."

Hughes tells Alborn she's "just trying to create more space with my shoulders and my knees."

"Just don't let it get too deep from the bar, I mean, too far forward with the knees and in with the shins before you can get over on top," he says.

It's hotter during a training session a couple of days later, which makes the women feel as if they're jumping through molasses. They're clearly more fatigued in the post-training film session with Alborn, which takes place in a cramped room whose window air-conditioning unit is not terribly efficient. Johnson and Jerome, curled side-by-side on the floor, watch their jumps and then can't stay awake.

Van's feline face is pursed with unhappiness even before Alborn shows her clips. "There was nothing I liked about today," she says. "It made me want to puke." She hops off where she's been perched atop a table and stands squarely in front of the big flat-screen, hands on hips, frowning at the images of herself. She's logged as many jumps as, or more jumps than, any woman on the planet, but she still has trouble shaking off time she considers ill-spent.

Seriousness of purpose has helped Van defy a compact, sturdy body type that is not what physiologists would call ideal for the sport. Her greatest liability and greatest asset are one and the same in her mind: "My legs. Strong, powerful. I didn't like to hear, 'No. Oh, this won't work.' Yes it will, why not?

"I try to keep it as simple as possible, not get too technical with it. It is a very simple sport. Stupid simple. Simple physics."

On another morning, the women gather at a small gym set up at the top of the Olympic bobsled run, another 2002 venue carved out of the sand-colored rock faces above Park City, for one of their thrice-weekly dry-land sessions. They usually work out at the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association's Center of Excellence down the hill, but today a new team sponsor -- REFUEL | got chocolate milk? -- is shooting footage and needs the team isolated in a quiet environment.

They step around each other and the machines. A couple of the jumpers carry workout logs in binders with a Leonardo da Vinci quote on the cover: "For once you have tasted flight, you will walk the Earth with your eyes turned skyward, for there you have been and there you will long to return." They banter while pedaling stationary bikes and working with light free weights, exuding the ease of people accustomed to being shadowed.

The crew inquires about trailing them during their down time in the afternoon. "I do laundry and I do crosswords," Jerome, the most reliably funny and caustic of the group, says good-naturedly. "I will not let you follow me at the grocery store."

Olympic status has only added to the necessity for the jumpers to continue marketing their sport. The top three athletes on the women's team receive some direct support from the U.S. ski team, and the jumpers have access to the elite training facilities and staff at the Center of Excellence. But 80 percent of the team's expenses are still borne by Women's Ski Jumping USA, the non-profit established by families and supporters 10 years ago. Jerome's father Peter initiated the paperwork after picking up a copy of "Non-Profits for Dummies." Visa has been the team's primary sponsor for many years.

There are, inconveniently, World Cup competitions in Europe, Russia and Japan but not in North America, and travel and coaching costs for each top athlete will run around $85,000 this season. In mid-July, the jumpers put on party dresses for their annual gala, which netted $130,000 through donations and a silent auction. Their parents were there, as always. They've been doing grassroots, bake sale-style fundraising since their daughters were little girls.

The parents' relationship grew organically, too, forged by the common experience of watching their daughters compete and the unusual stress of watching them denied equal opportunities. Unlike their kids, they are nostalgic about their common history, and despite multiple divorces in the group, they unite around the team.

The mothers are exceptionally close, dating back to the days when they sat at the bottom of the hill with potluck dishes and wine and watched for the telltale ponytails fluttering behind the helmets. They slept three or four to a room so they could afford to travel to events. Now they set their alarms for 1 or 2 or 3 a.m. and gather in one living room to watch the live feed from Germany or Norway or Japan.

Chris Johnson, Alissa's mother, had to contend with a unique dynamic. At 3, her son Anders was intent on following his 5-year-old sister on the 20-meter kids' jump. He snuck up to the top when no one was looking and sailed off without a helmet. Anders landed safely. Chris screamed. Thirteen years later, Chris was sitting in the Stadio Olimpico in Torino, thrilled to watch Anders walk in with the U.S. team, when her cell phone rang.

"It was the best moment and worst moment, because Alissa was calling and I knew I had to take the phone," Chris said. "Having to tell her life is not fair at that moment, you realize you can't just sit by, you have to help fight this battle."

Alissa did wind up in Torino with her teammates, flown in for a media tour, and gladly put her own feelings aside to cheer on her brother. But there and for the next four years, "I would see people who made the key decisions and hold a lot of resentment. They probably don't know how much they damaged us at a young age."

This was perhaps the only disadvantage of growing up in Park City: A blissful ignorance that much of the rest of the world was different until they were too hooked on their sport and too good at it to turn back.

The jumpers spend 11 months a year in close quarters. They work with a sports psychologist and call athletes-only team councils where they half-seriously vote someone off their island. Nothing could completely eliminate the inevitable conflicts between women who are sisters born of different parents, constantly jousting for position. They know too much about each other's sleeping patterns and personal lives. There are times at the end of a road trip when they've had more than enough togetherness.

But in the same way they embraced Hendrickson after she won a gold medal, they encircled her after she crashed on landing in a training run in Germany.

Hughes, riding up the funicular in Obersdorf, took note of the headwind rippling the indicator flags on the hill. As she reached the top, she saw a crumpled figure in a blue suit in the outrun area. When the team's World Cup coach, Paolo Bernardi, handed his radio to another coach on the observation platform and bolted down the steps, Hughes knew.

In Park City, Nancy Hendrickson's phone rang at 4 in the morning. Her daughter's voice was faint but distraught. "I fell and I hurt my knee," Sarah said. She got painkillers, but there was no easing the mental anguish for an athlete who knew she was seriously injured less than six months before she had expected to contend for a medal in Sochi. Hendrickson told team communications manager Whitney Childers before her surgery last week that she "cried for five days. After that, I told myself to pull it together, come up with a goal and do whatever I needed to do to accomplish it."

Jerome went to the hospital. She called Hendrickson's boyfriend, Norwegian jumper Tom Hilde, to let him know what had happened, and bird-dogged the medications Hendrickson received. The rest of the team gathered Hendrickson's gear and packed the other rental car. They traveled home as a group. Hendrickson's mother, feeling helpless thousands of miles away, knew Sarah couldn't have had a better posse around her.

Her teammates drifted in and out of the house last weekend, checking on her. "I was so happy to have them around," Nancy Hendrickson said.

As far as Sarah's concerned, "She has a passion for this sport that is just amazing," her mother said. "I really respect it. She will do the work that's required of her. She knows what it takes."

Everyone around her -- family, athletes, doctors and coaches -- has been deliberately mum about a specific timetable for Hendrickson's rehab and recovery, and avoided predicting whether she could be fit in time for the Olympics.

"I hope she makes good choices in her rehab and her health. I hope when she comes back, whenever that is, whether that's in January or March or next June, that she starts to pick up her skiing at a level she's satisfied with," Jerome said.

"I blew out my knee at the same age. We were in much different positions. She's got a lot more riding on her than I did at 19."

Jerome, Johnson and Van have all had major surgeries, some multiple times, that have sidelined them for months. They don't want to add to the pressure Hendrickson, like most elite athletes in her position, is likely to put on herself.

Sport doesn't always reward its seminal figures, but it would have seemed unthinkable for Van not to be in the mix for the inaugural women's Olympic competition. She is living, flying history.

When she was 8 years old, her uncle gave her a cow-print suit on a whim and started a trend. Kids in Park City are still wearing them. She is the shortest and most gifted girl in all the snapshots taken 20 years ago. She is still the shortest and most respected woman in all the team photos now.

Would her career have been different if she hadn't expended all that energy on being a forejumper for the whole sport, testing the hill, simply trying to ensure that women would wake up one morning in February knowing they'd jump on the big stage?

As she considers this, sitting on the couch in her condo next to her father Barry, he says, "You'd probably be retired now."

Van shakes her head. "I have no idea," she says. "This is the way it is and how it had to be. It's really hard to think about how it would have been if it had already been developed.

"Whether I'm jumping well or not jumping well, it'll be cool just to see it there, moving forward, and how much the sport has progressed and developed the last five years. It's crazy. It's cool to watch and cool to be part of it. I'll enjoy it for sure."