The women who dare: Steamboat female Nordic combined athletes awaken to Olympic possibilities
Timeline for women’s Nordic combined
— Women’s ski jumping debutes in Winter Olympics, making Nordic combined the only sport without a women’s event
— Girls Nordic combined appears in International Ski Federation (FIS) Youth Cup
— FIS Council receives strategic report on implementing women’s Nordic combined
— First United States National Championship to be award in women’s Nordic combined
— Women’s Nordic combined to debut as Continental Cup event, one step below a World Cup, with competitions in Estonia, Norway and Russia
— Girls Nordic combined to be contested as a test event at World Junior Nordic Championships in Switzerland
— Girls Nordic combined to make official debut at World Junior Nordic Championships
— Women’s Nordic combined World Cup to begin
— Women’s Nordic combined to be an event at Winter Olympics in Beijing
Kathleen O’Connell is retired from ski jumping.
That both was her choice and it wasn’t, and it both is true and it isn’t.
The Steamboat Springs athlete made that decision, to fly for the last time, at the end of the 2012-13 winter when she was a freshman at Steamboat Springs High School.
She took her jumping skis and buried them deep in a closet, buried them as deep as she buried any ambition she may have ever had in the sport of Nordic combined because there was no future in Nordic combined, no reason to persist, to train, to jump.
Nordic combined consists of both ski jumping and cross-country skiing. She was always better at cross-country skiing anyway, so the decision to stash the jumping skis was more prudent than it was emotional.
It wasn’t a bad decision, either. She’s excelled in the years since, skiing fast enough to earn a scholarship to the Montana State University ski team and then skiing fast enough there to qualify for the NCAA National Championships.
It is, in her words, “awesome.” It would be all she could ask for, but somewhere buried with those ambitions, it’s not — not quite all she could ask for. So when Kathleen O’Connell, retired from ski jumping, returns home from school for the summers, she digs deep into the closet and drags out those skis, straps them on at the top of the all-season jump at Howelsen Hill in Steamboat Springs and she soars — not training for anything and not competing for anything — just a retired ski jumper ski jumping.
“Even if you don’t fly for that far,” she said, “to fly is incredible.”
And so it’s gone for the last three summers, a once-a-year cheat day that does nothing more than remind her of something she once loved, even though it scared her a little every time and even though it never offered a future.
That is until this year.
O’Connell is among legions of young Steamboat Springs women who’ve grown up skiing Nordic combined. It’s a core part of the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club’s Nordic curriculum and has been for more than 20 years, for both boys and girls even though the opportunities have never been the same for both genders.
Some of those boys grew up to win Olympic medals in Nordic combined. All of those girls grew up to do something else, because, even though Nordic combined is one of just six sports to have been in every Winter Olympics ever contested — a fixture in the Games before the downhill, before biathlon and an eternity before snowboarding — it is the only Olympic sport, summer or winter, that doesn’t feature a womens event.
Steamboat girls put their skis in their closets because there was no reason not to, no sponsorships, no national teams, no money, no future.
An 18-year old woman in Nordic combined may as well train professionally for skipping rocks for as much good as focusing on Nordic combined would do. There’s at least a womens world championship for rock skipping. (“Skim the best and beat the rest,” coming next September in Scotland.)
That’s changing in a hurry, however.
A rush of development internationally and nationally is quickly opening up doors for womens Nordic combined athletes. This winter will feature the first senior international womens Nordic combined events ever contested. The Nordic Junior World Ski Championships this winter in Switzerland will have girls Nordic combined as a demonstration sport, and it will be introduced as a full event in 2019.
Today, the United States will play host to its very first womens Nordic combined national championship.
If all goes as planned, the womens Nordic combined could be in the Olympics as soon as 2022.
Kathleen O’Connell, one of dozens of women who once skied Nordic combined in Steamboat Springs, had every reason to retire from ski jumping and Nordic combined.
“It was a dead end,” O’Connell said, “so I decided on Nordic skiing.”
Senior womens Nordic combined will get off to a decidedly small start in the United States if today’s national championship, set for Lake Placid, New York, unfolds the way organizers are expecting.
They’re hoping for five competitors at the event. When one of the country’s most experienced womens Nordic combined skiers broke her arm this summer after a fall while training, some considered postponing the whole womens event by a year.
“But, we have to start somewhere,” said Bill Demong, executive director for USA Nordic, the organization that oversees the nation’s mens and womens ski jumping and Nordic combined programs.
Demong, an Olympic gold and silver medalist in Nordic combined, has battled with one of the principal questions that linger for this and any other developing sport.
What comes first, the prestigious events that draw athletes into the competitive field, or the competitive field that demands prestigious events?
“Is it the chicken or the egg?” Demong asked.
For another sport new to the field, the answer was the egg.
Womens ski jumping was required to prove it had a stable international competitive field before it was allowed to compete in the Olympics. It took a few women who simply refused to be defeated to push that sport to that point.
“Someone really passionate about a cause like that, they can change it for a lot of people,” said Lindsey Van, who doubled as one of ski jumping’s top talents and as one of the sport’s main political advocates.
It wasn’t easy and even now, a 2014 Olympian and retired from the sport, her scars from the many battles linger.
There were lawsuits, debates, fundraisers, arguments and oh-so-many exasperating moments that came from officials near and far, seemingly all who had to be convinced that womens ski jumping was indeed a thing, and a thing they needed to respect.
“Someone asked if my uterus would fall out ski jumping,” Van said. “People asked me that. I’m serious. Sometimes I thought, ‘I don’t even know how to answer your stupid question.’
“They thought we would get frustrated and go away,” she said. “It took a lot of fighting, pushback in a lot of really uncomfortable situations. Without myself and a group of about 10 or 12 other athletes willing to do that, it wouldn’t have moved forward.”
Wheels began turning for womens ski jumping in 1994 when the International Ski Federation, or FIS, created a working group to study the sport. The first international womens ski jumping event took place in 1999, and the first Continental Cup events were in 2005. Van won gold at the first World Championship in 2009.
Plenty stood in the way. In an interview with National Public Radio in 2005, Gian-Franco Kasper, head of FIS, said, ski jumping “seems not to be appropriate for ladies from a medical point of view.”
The sport didn’t crack the Olympics until 2014, 20 years after that initial FIS work group.
The efforts of those women kicking in the door may have paved the way for Nordic combined.
Whereas those women found hurdles, excuses and frustration, womens Nordic combined is currently welcomed by encouragement from organizations such as the International Olympic Committee and FIS.
Girls first began to compete internationally in the FIS Youth Cup in summer 2014 in Germany. That event drew 10 nations and 40 girls. A winter event in 2016 drew 14 nations and 58 skiers.
A 2016 document prepared by FIS Nordic combined race director Lasse Ottesen detailed a six-year plan to get womens Nordic combined into the Olympics by 2022. That included a World Cup circuit starting in 2020, a World Championship event in 2021 and, a year later, a date in Beijing for the Olympic Opening Ceremonies.
They’ve started the ball rolling internationally with a series of six Continental Cup events this winter, two each in Estonia, Norway and Russia.
Some countries have already jumped in. Austria, one of the titans of Nordic combined, named two women to its national team last season, before there were even any competitions to compete in.
There’s no official U.S. team yet, and there may not be for a while. What there is, however, is today’s race, potentially with only five competitors — a place to start.
If the answer to the chicken and the egg question was “egg” for womens ski jumping, it may well be “chicken” for Nordic combined. The athletes aren’t quite in place yet, but officials are hoping the aggressive timetable for big events can change that.
“You have to show there’s a place to go before you can expect there to be a ton of athletes,” Demong said. “This is the natural next step, and it’s long overdue.”
Girls skiing Nordic combined is far from a radical prospect in Steamboat Springs.
It’s been a part of the plan at least as long as Todd Wilson’s been involved, since 1993.
Wilson, a Nordic combined Olympian in 1988 and 1992, runs the Nordic combined and ski jumping programs for Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club.
Athletes were split about 50/50 between straight ski jumping and Nordic combined when he arrived, but he set up a plan to keep the younger athletes both jumping and skiing cross country. Eventually, the program was 90-percent Nordic combined.
“We saw the kids that did Nordic combined developed skills so much faster than the kids who just did one sport,” Wilson said.
Work on jumping, at first with regular Alpine skis instead of the extra long Nordic jumping skis, helped grow fearless young skiers. Work on thin cross-country skis developed strong athletes with good balance and coordination.
“We decided everyone should stick with Nordic combined until they got a little older to the U14 level,” Wilson said. “They usually stayed with Nordic combined then, too, because they knew it, they liked it and decided it was fun.”
The program’s expecting 132 athletes for the looming winter, and this year, as in previous years, about a third will be girls.
Most are young. Nearly half are in the Little Vikings program for skiers age 5, 6 and 7.
That’s where athletes like O’Connell get their start, first learning to pop over small mounds of snow, then slowly tackling ever-bigger jumping hills. They compete three or four times a year against their Steamboat peers, jumping at Howelsen Hill after school under the lights.
Participation tapers off for both genders at the U10 level and more so at U12 and U14.
Those boys who stick with it to U16 are beginning to dream about making the U.S. Ski Team, or even the Olympic team. Those girls who last that long, however, are in an awkward position. Whereas they jumped against dozens of their classmates at the U8 level and raced against a handful at U12, they’re often skiing alone in competitions by U16.
O’Connell qualified for Junior National Championships once in Nordic combined, and she placed second out of only three competitors.
A race last winter in Steamboat featured one girl in the U18 level and one at U16.
That can drain some drama from the race, and some enthusiasm from its racers.
“You try to stick with someone in front of you, even though it’s a guy, and you try to go as hard as you can,” said Tess Arnone, a 13-year old Nordic combined racer in Steamboat Springs. “You try and beat your own time.”
A dozen girls have gone all the way through the U18 level in the Nordic combined program during Wilson’s time coaching the club. Only a handful have ever progressed far enough to jump off the biggest jump at Howelsen.
“We have conversations with all of our athletes,” Wilson said. “We sit them down, talk about their goals. If it’s a girl and they say, ‘I want to go as far as I can in Nordic combined,’ you have to say, ‘You’re welcome to keep going, but you know there’s not a real future, right?’ Some girls choose to keep doing that, but most go elsewhere.”
Steamboat’s been home to plenty of Nordic combined athletes. Five of the eight skiers currently on the men’s Nordic combined team grew up in Steamboat Springs. Still, the coming and going for the club’s Nordic combined girls has left Steamboat without any the right age to be ready to compete in today’s National Championship, or any ready to travel to Europe for this winter’s Continental Cups.
Even if they aren’t there now, they are coming.
Arnone is one of several in the next wave of athletes. She’ll compete at the U16 level this winter, still several steps away from international competition. But, now that there is actually that international competition to strive toward, she’s intent on chasing that light at the end of the tunnel.
“I definitely want to go to the World Cup if I can,” she said. “I’d like to go to the Olympics.”
It took the United States nearly a century to earn its first Olympic medal in Nordic combined, a sport traditionally dominated by powers like Germany, Finland, Norway and Austria. That milestone came in 2010, when the U.S. men — Demong included — scored three silver medals and a gold at the Winter Olympics in Canada.
Women in the United States are hoping to speed up the process.
Several top competitors are currently on the womens ski jumping team. Gabby Armstrong, from Park City, Utah, is one, and Tara Geraghty-Moats, a Vermont-based athlete who’s distinguished herself in almost every form of Nordic skiing imaginable, is another.
Geraghty-Moats was a standout cross-country skier as a child but opted for Nordic combined, slowly working her way up to larger jumping hills. Her first flight off the big hill came in Steamboat Springs when she was 11, competing at junior national championships.
“It was such a thrill,” she said. “I knew I wanted to progress in the sport.”
She did, at least until her knee “exploded” on a landing off the Lake Placid jumps in 2009 when she was 16 years old.
She was told her jumping days were over, but she rehabbed enough to be able to ski again and she took up biathlon. She logged three years on the U.S. Biathlon Team when she realized her knee was feeling as strong as it ever had, so she returned to ski jumping where she promptly won the 2016 national championship. She has a great chance to make the 2018 Winter Olympics in ski jumping.
Nordic combined, however, is where it all comes together for her. Her wide range of skills has allowed her to stay in sports where other young women focused on Nordic combined saw no future.
Now she’s lasted long enough to actually get to compete in that event.
“If I go to the Olympics this winter, I’ll be a sidekick to all the superstars,” she said. “If I go in Beijing in 2022 in Nordic combined, I would hope to be one of the superstars. Getting an Olympic medal or winning a World Championship would be very attainable, whereas for jumping this winter, I’d hope to make the top 10 or top 15.”
Even as her focus has shifted to jumping, she never quit training on cross-country skis, a fact that led the occasional butting of heads with the U.S. womens coaching staff. She always found strong support from the mens Nordic combined team, frequently joining in with that group to train.
She has big plans to show her stuff this winter, but won’t get the chance this fall. She’s the one sidelined after a nasty crash this summer, the one whose injury was enough to make officials consider postponing the inaugural Nordic combined national championship. She hopes to be back jumping and preparing for the Olympics in a month, and it may take more than a broken arm to keep her out of all of this season’s Nordic combined Continental Cup races.
She’ll start the season early focused on ski jumping, hoping to lock down that spot on the Olympic team. That may mean she has to skip the first four Continental Cup events. She’ll do everything she can to be at the last two, however, scheduled to take place in March in Russia, after the Olympics.
“It will be amazing, really thrilling and a dream come true,” she said, considering those races. “There probably won’t be many spectators and it’ll be pretty low key, but I don’t really care. It’s a start.”
Dusting off the jump skis
Kathleen O’Connell, the Steamboat Springs skier competing for Montana State who’s retired, or kind of retired, from ski jumping and Nordic combined, plans to watch from afar.
She’s excited about her looming ski season. The NCAA Championships are in Steamboat in March, and she’s eager not only to qualify for them and earn the chance to compete in her hometown, but to do well there.
She’ll also keep an eye on the progress of womens Nordic combined on the international stage.
It never exactly struck her as unfair as she was making the decision five years ago to give up Nordic combined and tackle cross-country skiing.
It was just a decision girls in her situation made. Her older sister, Mary O’Connell, also shined in Steamboat’s Nordic combined programs. She’s one of the few local girls to fly from Howelsen’s biggest jump. But, eventually, she quit to focus on cross-country skiing, and that led her to Dartmouth, where she competed for four years.
Kathleen was following in her footsteps, and in the footsteps of others along a well-worn path for Steamboat girls — up the ranks of Nordic combined into their teenage years then off to something else — to a different dream and a different life.
Now she’s thinking back on it, back on her days in Nordic combined and, more recently, her summers pulling out the jumping skis for a brief trip back in time.
She’ll graduate from Montana State in May 2020. That’d give her two summers and one full winter to regain and sharpen her jumping skills, and it would put her right on the doorstep of the Olympics if womens Nordic combined does indeed make the cut in 2022.
That’s a dream she never even had, but it’s one that suddenly seems real.
Maybe she’s not so retired after all.
“It’s something where it never seemed like it would be possible,” she said, “but now it is.”
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