A fight for women’s flights: Historic season gets women’s Nordic combined step closer to Olympics

Ski Jumper Annikla Malacinski lunches off the HS75 ski jump at Howelsen Hill during the 2021 USA Nordic Championships special jumping team event. Malacinski and teammates Alexa Brabec and Annika Belshaw topped the women's field to win the title. The pair and teammate Tess Arnone took part in the first-ever women’s World Cup season this winter, a huge step towards getting the sport into the Olympics. (Photo by John F. Russell)

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — There is but one sport standing in the way of gender equality at the Winter Olympics: Nordic combined. Every other sport features men and women, but Nordic combined, a sport that combines ski jumping and Nordic skiing, is only available to men — at least for now.

The sport debuted at the World Cup level and in the World Championships this year, the latest benchmarks toward the International Ski Federation’s (FIS) goal to get the sport in the 2026 Winter Olympics.

“We’ve done the most important thing that we needed to do, especially given the challenges of this season with COVID,” said USA Nordic Executive Director Billy Demong. “That is, we checked the box of World Cup and we checked the box of World Championships. Those are two of the big strategic hurdles in further developing the sport.”

The rapid growth of the sport around the world is a positive sign the Olympic goal will be realized when the IOC meets in 2022, but the increase in competition also puts pressure on the U.S. National team to keep up with the strong European contenders.

“I am very confident that the sport is ready, the nations, the athletes, both men and women,” Demong said. “The teams are all geared up and expecting that this will be added to the 2026 program and truly bring gender equity to the games.”

A short, speedy history

When women’s ski jumping was added to the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia, it left Nordic combined as the only sport without women. That same year, the sport was implemented into the FIS Youth Cup system. Two years later, in 2016, FIS published a women’s Nordic combined strategy. The first few years of the plan involved building the youth programs, the feeding tubes to the larger national programs.

The long-term strategy estimated the first women’s Continental Cup event in 2018, involvement in the Junior World Championships and Youth Olympic Games and the first World Cup series in 2020-21. So far, that’s all happened right on schedule.

The pandemic hacked away at the inaugural women’s World Cup season this winter, leaving the skiers with one competition and the World Championships. Nevertheless, the historic season still happened and is officially in the books.

“I hope we as women can have more opportunities as the men to have more world cups and more events,” said Steamboat Springs native and U.S. National team member Annika Malacinski. “This year knowing most of our events were canceled. In that sense, it was really hard. I’m happy that I found this community and that I fell in love with the sport and I hope that we can get more support in women’s Nordic combined.”

U.S. National Team member Tara Geraghty-Moats won the first World Cup event and finished fifth in the World Championships, earning her the No. 1 overall spot in the World Cup standings.

Steamboat has played a role in growing the sport as Howelsen Hill hosted the first Continental Cup event for women in 2018. Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club skiers and national team members Tess Arnone and Alexa Brabec represented Steamboat and the USA in the sport’s debut at the Youth Olympic Games in 2020.

Steamboat Springs Tess Arnone competes at the 2021 USA Junior National Championships team event in Steamboat Springs. (Photo by John F. Russell)

“I’m super proud that we’re a part of it and have girls participating,” said Todd Wilson, SSWSC Nordic combined program director. “We’re kind of the center of Nordic combined for sure in the country. It’s great to see the participation that we have. It’s exciting to see which of these girls can latch on to those opportunities.”

Now the timeline includes expanding the sport and including a mixed-gender team event in the 2023 World Championships.

Hopefully, the 2021-22 season looks more like this season was intended to, with more events in the Continental Cup and World Cup circuits.

The original plan for the sport was to be in the Olympics by 2022. However, FIS altered that goal and now aims for 2026.

“They just want to make sure they’re taking the proper steps and there is growth at every step,” said Wilson. “I think they paused to say no, we need a little more time to develop this. … I think they’ve done a nice job of saying not quite yet.”

For young athletes like Arnone, Brabec and Malacinski, the push to 2026 could make a huge difference in their readiness to perform on the world’s biggest athletic stage.

Annika Malacinski. left, greets teammate Alexa Brabec at the finish line of the USA JUnior National Championships after winning the Nordic combined team sprint event.

“It’s disappointing coming into an Olympic year (in 2022), that men (can compete in) it but women can’t. It’s really frustrating looking at it from that point of view,” said Malacinski. “But the Olympics have always been a huge dream of mine. … 2026 seems like a lot of years, but I’m confident that’s where I want to head to and I’m just going to try to work my hardest and have my best results coming into that 2026 year. I’m really hoping FIS makes it work.”

Propelling the sport forward

USA Nordic now has the three-fold task of keeping Geraghty-Moats on top, pushing the three Steamboat women to the next level and working with clubs nationwide to encourage young girls to pick up and get excited about the sport.

That’s all easier said than done.

Geraghty-Moats is already wary of whether the U.S. can keep up with the resources of the European teams.

“When teams like Germany and Austria and Norway have four coaches for their team and a physical therapist and two wax techs, it’s becoming very very hard for the U.S. women to compete at a high level and stay competitive,” she said in an interview in early March. “I’m hoping that will change in the coming years, because I think that’s going to be a roadblock for women’s Nordic combined very quickly.”

Right now, the women’s national team has one coach, in Tomas Matura. However, the women compete alongside the men at the same Continental or World Cup venue. That allows the USA Nordic men’s staff to assist Matura and the women’s team.

Demong is confident in the future of the program. The Olympian has spent the last decade helping build USA Nordic after US Ski and Snowboard cut funding to ski jumping and Nordic combined. Resourcing everyone equitably will take time.

“I know we have the foundation. What we need to do is recognize that athletics at its core is a game of patience,” he said. “Having been to five Olympic games myself and part of an Olympic development pipeline that began in Steamboat Springs in the mid-1990s, I know how long that took to come to fruition.”

Demong said developing a sustainable pipeline is top of his priority list in regards to women’s Nordic combined.

In order to provide USA Nordic with new generations of athletes, clubs across the country have to foster excitement and involvement in young girls.

“It’s a matter of getting the sport to a level where there’s enough participation that once you do get it into the international scene, you want it to stay,” said Wilson. “It requires a commitment from a lot of countries to get this going at the grassroots level without any real funding. It’s relying on grassroots clubs like ours to get girls excited and get the numbers to a point where there’s consistency.”

That consistent growth is happening. Especially now that high-level events provide incentives for younger athletes to stick with the sport.

Courtesy International Ski Federation website.

According to a 2020 strategy update from FIS, there were 167 female athletes registered with a FIS code across all levels, up from 77 participants in 2015.

That same report noted participation in the Continental Cup grew from eight countries and 19 skiers in 2017-18, to 13 countries and 48 skiers in 2019-20. Even amid the pandemic, that participation rate held steady at 44 skiers this year.

In order to foster a competitive sport, though, there has to be a pipeline of girls always working their way to that level and if history has anything to do with it, that pipeline will run right through Steamboat.

Courtesy International Ski Federation website.

“I don’t think that we’re so heavily resourced we can expect to win everything all of the time, right now,” Demong said. “But, I do think we have the platform that given some time and some fine tuning, we can be very competitive in every one of our disciplines.”

Support Local Journalism

Support Local Journalism

Readers around Steamboat and Routt County make the Steamboat Pilot & Today’s work possible. Your financial contribution supports our efforts to deliver quality, locally relevant journalism.

Now more than ever, your support is critical to help us keep our community informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having locally. Every contribution, however large or small, will make a difference.

Each donation will be used exclusively for the development and creation of increased news coverage.