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Olympics / Sports

Officials watch competition in the men's normal hill competition at the RusSki Gorki Jumping Center during the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, Sunday, Feb. 9, 2014. (Brian Cassella/Chicago Tribune/MCT)

Women's ski jumping set to take flight

ADLER, Russia -- Jessica Jerome was just 11 when she was told the facts of life.

Or at least USA Ski Jumping's version of them.

A federation official warned Jerome that if she continued ski jumping she was risking permanent damage to her reproductive system.

"Don't you want to have babies?" the official asked, Jerome recalled.

"And I was like, 'I don't want a baby anyway!'" Jerome said. "I was like this little 11-year-old firecracker."

It was the first indication that little Jessica Jerome of Park City, Utah, wasn't going away.

For more than 15 years, a group of young girls from the Utah ski resort town, their families and friends led the fight to have women's ski jumping added to the Olympic Games, a grassroots battle that went global, fueled by bake sales, a well-worn copy of "Non-Profits for Dummies," and hearts and spines much larger and stronger than the size of their owners' suggested.

"It was a long, uphill battle," Jerome said.

A few minutes past 8:20 (local) Tuesday night, Jerome, the 11-year-old firecracker turned 24-year-old rocket, will stand atop that hill, looking down on the Ski Jumping Stadium's normal hill in the Caucasus Mountains, only seconds away from finally taking flight at the Olympic Games.

"Of course I'm excited to representing Team USA, but I'm also excited to be representing women's ski jumping," said Jerome, the U.S. Olympic Trials champion. "There's this great camaraderie we have all with the girl jumpers and all of us are thrilled to be here and show the world what we have on the world stage."

Along the way to the Olympic hill and global stage Tuesday, having encountered and persevered through obstacle after obstacle, including a devastating setback in the Canadian courts, the women and their supporters came to see their fight and its universal themes as something larger than their sport.

"This issue went way beyond ski jumping," said Deedee Corradini, the former Salt Lake City mayor who became involved with the group. "It became a women's rights issue, and a human rights issue. It was injustice that had to be righted."

Said Lindsey Van, the 2009 World champion: "When you have something you believe in, you have to fight for it."

There are records of women ski jumping as far back as the 1890s. There are photographs of an Austrian countess ski jumping in a skirt in the early 1900s. But women were not included when the sport was put on the Olympic program for the 1924 Games in Chamonix. Even as other women's winter sports such as bobsled, luge and even hockey were added to the Olympics, ski jumping remained the last bastion of five-ring male chauvinism.

"It's a very traditional sport," Barbara Jerome said. "They didn't think there was a place for women in it. They thought women would also take some of the X-factor away from it. It would take some of the adventure out of it if girls can do it. It wouldn't be as edgy."

Women still might not be included were it not for the serendipity of Jerome and Van growing up with a ski jump practically in their backyards.

"Having a ski jump in your hometown is a unique thing," Jerome said.

Van was among a small handful of girls in North America and Europe jumping when 7-year-old Jerome approached her parents about trying the sport.

"When I told my parents I wanted to ski jump, my mom said no and my dad had a vision of the agony of defeat on the 'Wide World of Sports,'" Jerome said. "They both said no, no way."

Not surprisingly, Jerome wore her parents down. Changing the minds of U.S. Ski Jumping and FIS, the sport's worldwide governing body, would be another matter. Before long, Jerome and her parents were confronted by officials who insisted they were merely looking out for the safety of the girls, repeating a standard line.

"There was a direct quote that 'it was not appropriate from a medical point of view,' that it would damage our reproductive organs," Jerome said as a reporter rolled his eyes. "I know, I know, you have the same reaction that they all do."

But not even the sport's amateur gynecology or the lacerated spleen she suffered in 2004 would keep Jerome off the hill. Yet if Jerome and Van wouldn't go away, then the sports' bosses would just pretend that they didn't exist. At 14, Jerome became the first woman to score points in a men's competition.

"Or I scored a point," Jerome said. "I was 30th place. And my mom was so proud of me and she looked up the results online and my name wasn't on there. They wouldn't put my name on the results.

"And so my mom sent these emails (to USA Ski Jumping) like, 'Hello, like she was 30th place fair and square, she gets that point.' I think they were hesitant because technically by me scoring a point it would make me eligible to compete at the Olympics even though I was so far down on the list of Americans. That used to be the rule that you had to have at least a point to be eligible and I was the first girl ever. So my mom sent these emails and they finally added me to the results list. Like it mattered. It's just my mom being a proud mom and she got really frustrated that we didn't have the same opportunities.

"My mom was really upset ... because she always told my sister and I growing up that we could do whatever we wanted to do and of course I chose the one sport in the Winter Olympics where I couldn't."

Soon Barbara, a teacher, was sending husband Peter, an airline pilot, to the local bookstore for a book on setting up a non-profit organization.

"It was like the 'Field of Dreams,'" Barbara Jerome said. "It's not going to happen if you don't build it yourself."

Before long the Jeromes and other parents and friends founded Women's Ski Jumping USA, a non-profit that became the national governing body of the women's sport.

"With the gender-equality fight to get women's ski jumping on the level it is now, it was essentially started by mom complaining that something had to change, something had to be done and pushing my dad out the door and he went out and bought a 'Non-Profits for Dummies' book and that turned into what is today Women's Ski Jumping USA," Jerome said. "They truly believe everyone should have a chance to succeed at whatever they wanted to. They really believe that."

It turned out so did a lot of other folks in Park City and Utah. One of them was Corradini, who became interested in battle after meeting Van in a real estate class. As Salt Lake City mayor, Corradini had been involved in lobbying the IOC to add women's luge and bobsled for the 2002 Games in Utah. But even given her experience in dealing with the IOC and international sports federations, Corradini was taken aback by the resistance the women ski jumpers faced.

"It was such an emotional roller coaster," Corradini said. "Every time we got told no, every time it was such a huge letdown."

Yet the women kept fighting. The group wrote letters, hundreds and hundreds of letters. They circulated petitions with thousands and thousands of signatures in support. The FIS still said no. So did the IOC.

The IOC's resistance was especially infuriating since the organization had spent much of the past decade talking about the need to create more competitive opportunities for women. The IOC was also in the midst of what Olympic historians call the "Californication" of the Games, a strategy of attracting a younger audience to the Olympics by adding X Games-like sports. With women's ski jumping, it seemed like the IOC had a chance to check off two boxes. Instead it continued to dismiss the women.

"The IOC told us no twice before we even filed the lawsuit," Corradini said.

Van and Jerome were among 15 women's ski jumpers who filed a discrimination lawsuit against the Vancouver Organizing Committee (VANOC) in a Canadian court, when ski jumping was left off the 2010 Olympic program. While the court ruled that the women were in fact being discriminated against, it also ruled that VANOC did not have the power to overrule the IOC decision.

The ruling hit Van and Jerome especially hard. The women and their families and friends couldn't help wondering if the sport ever made it to the Olympics would the two pioneers still be competing? They continued on, however, seeing the fight as not just their own but for future generations as well.

"For them it was important to go down in history fighting," Barbara Jerome said. "How many people can say they really made a difference?"

In early 2011, the IOC finally gave in. Women's ski jumping was on the Olympic program in 2014. It was not a complete victory. The women have only one event. The men have three.

"It was not a huge call to celebration in my mind," Jerome said. "It was like a weight being lifted."

On Tuesday, Jerome, the kid who refused to take no for an answer, will stand atop the mountain, her long climb and those who would have her grounded, behind her. Her parents, Corradini, family and friends will wait for her at the bottom of the hill. Jerome was recently asked what made her sport worth fighting for.

"The elegance, there's a beauty to it and I think it's very unique to what we do," she said.

She will speed down the jump, exploding into the air, ever flying toward those who helped her gain her wings, the little firecracker finally soaring through an Olympic sky.

(c)2014 The Orange County Register (Santa Ana, Calif.)

Visit The Orange County Register (Santa Ana, Calif.) at www.ocregister.com

Distributed by MCT Information Services


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