A sport taking flight | SteamboatToday.com

A sport taking flight

Booming Nordic program showcases female ski jumpers

Dave Shively

— Todd Wilson can remember the days as junior ski jumper, not so long ago, when he’d be ribbed after a short jump for “jumping like a girl.”

These days, Wilson sees a far different gender balance on the jumps.

“There’s simply no reason that girls can’t do it,” Wilson said, refuting an urban legend that women were once discouraged from the Nordic discipline because of an apparent risk to their ovaries. “There’s even reasons that women can be better – they’re built more like a wing and they tend to be lighter.”

Wilson, the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club’s Nordic program director, has always had one or two girls work their way through the club ranks, but now something new is on the horizon.

“In the past, it has been one at a time, working up the ladder, but never a whole group of them, hitting all the stepping stones,” Wilson said. He now coaches a foursome of junior girls – mostly ages 12 and 13 – with more than double that number waiting in the wings.

While Wilson can attribute part of the dramatic growth to a grassroots, bottom-up approach – like the Winter Sports Club’s popular Little Vikings Nordic combined entry-level program for young children – he realizes he is at the whim of moves made at the national and international levels.

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“Girls have been ski jumping forever, but it wasn’t until recently – with the U.S. Ski Team recognizing it – that now there’s an opportunity,” Wilson said. He pointed out that the first women’s ski jumping world championship is planned for next season. “As soon as there’s a pipeline for progression, it creates interest and a future.”

On Tuesday afternoon, the pipeline was evident in the Winter Sports Club’s Nordic program wax room at Howelsen Hill Lodge, as this group of the eldest girls – which includes Madison Keeffe, Emily Hannah, Lucy Newman and Mary O’Connell – prepared for an afternoon skate-ski sprint practice.

“I had more fun jumping,” O’Connell said of her reasons for sticking with the sport over the slew of other options available. “It felt like I was flying.”

O’Connell has progressed rapidly and already has qualified up an age division for the upcoming Ski Jumping Nordic Combined Junior Olympics in Ishpeming, Mich.

The 13-year-old doesn’t get caught up in the politics of the sport, at the heart of which is the International Olympic Committee’s controversial denial of allowing women’s ski jumping in the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Winter Games. She just hopes to “do it as well as I can right now.”

Other part-time SSWSC members like Nita Englund, who travels from her Wisconsin home to train with the club’s head ability coach, Martin Bayer, are a little more fired up about the situation.

Like O’Connell, she’s focused on jumping well at the JOs, but the 15-year-old also is working to get the word out about a circulating petition that women’s ski jumping activists and supporters hope to submit to the IOC at a two-year Olympic kickoff event in Vancouver at the end of the month.

“People really don’t know about it and, really, not saying stuff is what’s going to keep us out in the future,” Englund said.

Although Wilson acknowledges this “final roadblock” of Olympic inclusion, he also sees the irony of the gender tables being turned since the U.S. Ski Team disbanded its men’s ski jumping team. Now it seems there are more opportunities for female special jumpers with the end goal of a national team.

But that’s a whole other debate. For now, Wilson is just excited to have an enthusiastic new crop of athletes in the club ranks.

“The balance it brings to the program is a healthy delight,” he said. “It’s nothing but good stuff.”

On the ‘Net

For more information and details on the petition drive to let women ski jump in the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Winter Games, visit http://www.wsj2010.com.