LIBEREC, Czech Republic—Lindsey Van's goggles were so fogged Friday that she basically had to jump blind. The ski jumper from Park City, Utah, couldn't see past her ski tips. She had to make the biggest landing of her life—"just by feel"—on the biggest stage afforded so far to women jumpers.
She killed it, as her friends would say.
Van's second jump in the FIS Nordic World Ski Championships catapulted her into the history books. The 24-year-old will forever be remembered as the first ever women's ski jumping world champion. Van also becomes only the second American to win a World Championship ski jumping medal, joining Anders Haugen, the 1924 bronze medalist in the combined Olympics and World Championships.
"It hasn't really set in yet," Van said, more than eight hours after her historic win. "I haven't had five minutes alone today. It's been hard to think about what just happened, but it's coming in slowly."
Conditions were anything but ideal for the 37 athletes who took part in the first Nordic World Championships to allow women ski jumpers. It snowed off and on all day and it was windy in all directions. "Like a tornado," Van said, who just a year ago suffered a devastating knee injury.
The veteran athlete, who's probably jumped more than 15,000 times in her young life, refocused after a disappointing 63-meter jump in the trial round. "I really had to come back from that. I laughed it off because I knew I could have much better jumps than that. It was totally out of character for me. I erased it from my mind."
Van was fourth heading into the second of her two jumps. She soared nearly 320 feet, 97.5 meters—the longest jump of the competition—edging out Ulrike Graessler, of Germany. Anette Sagen, of Norway, was third. Americans Jessica Jerome finished sixth, Alissa Johnson 20th and Sarah Hendrickson 29th.
Supporters hope the success of this major event will go a long way in proving to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) that women ski jumpers belong in the Games. In 2006, the IOC decided not to allow women to compete in the 2010 Vancouver Olympic Winter Games. Ski jumping is the only sport in the Winter Games in which women are excluded.
U.S. athletes Van, Jerome, and eight other current and retired ski jumpers from Austria, Norway, Slovenia, Germany and Canada have filed a discrimination lawsuit against the Vancouver Organizing Committee in the Supreme Court of British Columbia. The women want an injunction saying they should be included. The hearing is set for April 20, 2009.
"I don't think we are too few or too few nations. We need to get the sport moving forward," said Norway's Sagen. "We have to start somewhere and we are starting here today with the world championships. Despite the difficult conditions we did very well—all of us."
A long road from Detroit
Van barely measures 5-feet, 3-inches tall—hers is not the ideal "flying" body type, she said. But she's packed with muscle (friends say she can squat 300 pounds when healthy) and she's got that homegrown bulldog competitiveness. She's so well respected, her peers nicknamed her "The Technician" because she's considered a master at jumping technique.
Van moved to Park City when she was 5 years old. Her father had been laid off from the Ford Motor Company in Detroit and so her parents decided to move out West to be ski bums. By age 10, she was competing internationally in ski jumping, her parents footing the bill for travel to places like Austria, Canada, Japan, Norway and Germany. Back then, the young female jumpers didn't stay in hotels. "We spent a lot of nights sleeping in leaky barns in those days," recalled Van.
In the 1990s, her longtime coach, Larry Stone, hosted her for two years while she trained in Lake Placid, New York. He always remembers the day the little daredevil of a ski jumper was first introduced to media. "At that time, Lindsey was about 10. She was already showing good promise and could beat most of the women at that point. All of a sudden, about 10-12 Asian journalists start running toward her to ask questions. She screams and gets behind me, then takes off to avoid the questions."
Van is well aware she's seen as a pioneer in a sport that is fighting just to be included in the Winter Olympics. She holds the hill record for both women and men for the longest jump (105.5 meters) at Whistler Olympic Park in Vancouver, the same hill athletes will use during the 2010 Games. She has 13 U.S. National titles and eight individual Continental Cup wins.
She said Friday that after 17 years of hard work, she's finally getting used to the idea of being a history-maker. She's also quick to share her victory with the same young women she's trained alongside for years.
"I want to share this (win) with all my teammates since they have been working all these years to get to this point. They deserve it," Van said. "We've been struggling with ski jumping in the U.S. I hope this medal brings everyone together … for ski jumping so that it can grow in the future."