Van wins women's ski jump title

LIBEREC, Czech Republic -- Lindsey Van of the United States nailed a perfect second jump to become the first women's ski jumping world champion Friday, almost exactly a year after a serious knee injury nearly ended her career.

Van was fourth after the first round but soared 97.5 meters through heavy snow in the second -- by far the longest of the competition -- to finish with 243 points and edge first-round leader Ulrike Graessler of Germany.

"I feel like I'm a pioneer in the sport now," said Van, who started jumping at 7 after a hill was built near her home in Park City, Utah. "I feel like I've been at the front of the sport for so many years. So at this point it feels like I've kind of helped push the sport along."

Women's ski jumping is debuting at this year's Nordic skiing world championships, and the sport hopes to be part of the 2014 Sochi Olympics. It failed to win approval for next year's Vancouver Games despite lobbying from Van and other jumpers.

A small group is suing the Vancouver Organizing Committee in an attempt to get around the International Olympic Committee's decision. The lawsuit contends that excluding women from an event that men have been competing in since the first Winter Games violates Canadian law against gender discrimination.

Graessler led after jumping 93.5 meters on the normal hill in the first round and managed 93 in the second to finish with 239 points for silver. Anette Sagen of Norway was third with jumps of 93.5 and 94 meters for 238.5 points.

Van had jumped 89 meters in the first round, and her second effort immediately drew a roar from the small, flag-waving American contingent, mostly friends and family.

The 24-year-old Van could not contain her excitement while waiting for her last rivals to come down the hill, jumping up and down and sticking her tongue out for the cameras.

"There was a really crazy point when my head was going everywhere," Van said. "It was hard to think of anything. I was just watching them jump, and I was pretty sure they were going to both go further than me. So when I saw the leaderboard with my name still at the top I was obviously really surprised and just really happy."

Van's achievement looked highly unlikely just a year ago, when she blew out her knee Feb. 15 during training.

"I just landed and my bones hit together, and the cartilage exploded," she said. "I didn't fall or anything. I guess it was just wear and tear over the years."

She had surgery in March, then spent every day in the gym for the next five months. She returned to jumping in October, only to reinjure her knee and end up on crutches again.

"I still don't feel 100 percent, she said. "I'm just getting close to [full recovery] now, and it's starting to feel like a real leg again."

There had been concerns this week the debut at the worlds may have come to soon. Fourteen-year-old Czech jumper Lucie Mikova crashed in training and was taken to hospital with minor injuries. The youngest athlete of the championships, 12-year-old Natalie Dejmkova of the Czech Republic, withdrew after she fell on her first training jump Tuesday.

But there were no crashes Friday and six of the 31 starters managed at least one jump over 90 meters. Nine of the competitors were 15 or younger and there are still large gaps in ability, with several jumps of less than 60 meters.

Nevertheless, the medalists said they showed they deserve to be at Sochi.

"The sport needs to move forward," Sagen said. "We have to start somewhere, and we're starting here today with the world championship. And we did great. Despite the difficult conditions we did very well, all of us."

Van was a fore jumper at the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City. She currently owns the hill record -- for men and women -- at the Olympic venue in Vancouver with a jump of 105.5 meters on the normal hill. Women don't compete on the bigger hill.

"I hope it holds until the Olympics, and then they'll realize who holds it and realize who should actually be there as well," she said.

While many of Friday's jumpers were in their teens, all three medalists were among the oldest. Graessler is 21 and Sagen is 24.

"I'm happy that it's the old ladies that are the first three," Graessler said.

For Van, however, the Sochi Games may be too far away.

"I can't even think that far ahead right now," she said.