Olympics / Sports

Women's ski-jumping making its Olympic debut

SOCHI, Russia -- Women had been ski-jumping for decades when Jessica Jerome took her first flying leap at age 7. The Utah resident knew she liked it right away, nearly as quickly as her parents knew they did not.

"My dad kept thinking of the agony of defeat (footage that shows a ski-jumper wiping out) from the Wide World of Sports," she said.

But she did not give up and eventually, when her parents learned that neither their daughter nor any other young girl could grow up to be an Olympian jumper, their distaste became outrage.

In 2003, the Jeromes and other parents of Park City ski-jumpers, including her Olympic teammate Lindsey Van, formed an organization to correct that shortcoming.

"It was essentially started by Mom complaining that something needed to be done," Jerome recalled here Friday. "My Dad went out to the store and bought a 'Nonprofits for Dummies' book and that turned into what is today Women's Ski Jumping USA."

In 2011, 87 years after the men's version was part of the first Winter Games, the group won its eight-year fight to have the sport included in the Olympics. And on Tuesday, in the snow-peaked mountains that hover over this Black Sea resort, Jerome and her fellow jumpers will vie for a gold medal in the soaring sport's debut.

In that two-jump competition, Jerome's teammate, 19-year-old Sarah Hendrickson, is expected to have the best shot at doing the near-impossible, defeating Japanese sensation Sara Takanashi.

Takanashi, a tiny 17-year-old, has been almost unbeatable this season, capturing eight of the nine World Cup events.

"For me, Sara is an amazing athlete," said Hendrickson. "Her results say it all. She's been under the most intense pressure, especially (Japanese) media pressure and yet she gets up that hill and jumps amazingly, brushing it all off like it's not a problem. She's an amazing competitor and I'm expecting her to continue that."

Henderson is the world's next best jumper, but her upset chances here could be imperiled by the knee injury she suffered in August.

In her sport, the knees endure a major impact on landing. But, Henderson noted, that joint doesn't take nearly the beating it does in the torque demands of Alpine or freestyle skiing.

"I really feel stronger that I've ever been," she said. "Actually, having this injury has relieved a lot of pressure. Coming into this season, I was the reigning world champion. Now I'm kind of an underdog. If I didn't have this injury, I would have tons of pressure on me."

The fact that Tuesday's winner will be the first women's gold medalist in the relatively aged sport fixes a spotlight on its long and largely inexplicable absence from the Winter Games.

While all manner of extreme sports have been added to the Olympic schedule in the last 20 years, women's ski-jumping, which predates them all, remained on the outside.

"Our sport has a certain elegance and beauty to it. It's unique," said Jerome, who turns 27 Saturday. "But our fight was getting one foot in the door. The athletes in those other sports are amazing and they deserve to be here as much as we do. I'm just glad they didn't have the trouble we did."

Still, Tuesday's normal-hill event will be the only one for female ski-jumpers here. The men, on the other hand, will have three -- normal-hill, big-hill and a team competition.

"I'm hoping this is the first step for us," said Jerome. "I'm really appreciative that we're here and we have our one event. And maybe in the future we'll have the big-hill and team event too."

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