PARK CITY — All they ever wanted to be were athletes.
But when the International Olympic Committee barred them from competing simply because they were female, the women of U.S. ski jumping became reluctant activists.
Their desire to participate made them warriors in a battle they never really wanted to fight. Their dream of being Olympians forced them to be crusaders for equality and fairness.
Their reward was both simple and stunning.
Sunday afternoon, standing under a perfectly clear blue sky at the bottom of the ski jumps at the Utah Olympic Park surrounded by more than 5,000 cheering fans, the women could bask in the joy of their athletic skill.
Only one of them could stand on top of the podium, but they'd all won.
“(The fight) doesn’t make it any more important for me, but it definitely adds to the emotion surrounding it,” said Park City native Jessica Jerome, who won the first of four spots on the team that will represent the United States at the 2014 Olympic Games in February. “It’s amazing. I was always saying when we were doing all of that court stuff, and trying to be advocates for the sport, all I wanted to do was train.”
Jerome may have been the official winner of the first-ever Olympic Trials, but their efforts allow all of us to win.
That’s because their battle was never just about sports.
“It was about women’s rights and about human rights,” said U.S. Women’s Ski Jumping President and former Salt Lake City mayor Deedee Corradini. “That’s what our fight turned into.”
Tears filled her blue eyes as she talked about what it means to watch the women actually competing for a spot on the country’s first Olympic team.
“I’ve never been more excited,” she said, grinning. “It’s real. We’ve been waiting for this day for 12 years.”
It was a fight none of them ever quite understood. That’s likely because when IOC officials bothered to give reasons for barring women from competing in the games, the explanations were easily refuted, illogical or downright ridiculous.
The women simply loved their sport. They were talented and competitive, and as such, they dreamed of representing their country on the grandest stage sport offers: the Olympics.
But they were girls.
And girls were not allowed to compete in ski jumping at the Olympics.
So while Jerome and fellow team member Lindsey Van don’t exactly look like warriors, while they never asked to lead social change, the pair of Park City natives took up the fight. Their fight to be included in the Olympics became a fight for equal opportunities — regardless of the dream.
It was a painful battle that became especially ugly in late 2009 when 15 women sued VANOC, the Vancouver Olympic Games Organizing Committee and the IOC for violating their human rights by excluding them from the games simply because they were female. Van had just won the inaugural women’s ski jumping world championship, and she became the face of the sport — whether she wanted to or not.
The court sympathized with the women but said it had no authority to force the IOC to include women. The loss was devastating. Van left the sport for a year, unsure if she wanted to keep fighting to compete in a movement that clearly didn’t care if they were second-class citizens.
“Lindsey and Jessica have struggled the most, as athletes, in this 12-year fight,” Corradini said, “because Lindsey wound up being the spokesperson for the athletes through all of this. The emotional toll it took for them to sign up as the first two of the 15 plaintiffs in the legal case was huge for them emotionally. They were scared to death that they’d be thrown off the team or punished in some way. And they’re the ones who talked all of the other jumpers, the Europeans, into joining our fight. The emotional toll on them was huge.”
Eventually Van came back for the same reason that all of the U.S. women who competed on Sunday stuck with the sport: They simply love to fly.
They kept training.
They kept fighting.
They kept flying.
“It was unfair that they had to fight, but it was the only way to win the battle,” Corradini said. “My hope is that because (they) will be a major story in Sochi, our athletes will become the role models for other young girls to say, ‘Hang in there. With persistence and never giving up, you can achieve your dreams.’ It will be hard, and you’ll have your ups and downs, but don’t give up.”
Other female athletes who are dealing with the agony of being excluded have come to the women of ski jumping, just as these women went to the group of runners who fought successfully for women marathoners to be included in the 1984 Summer Games in Los Angeles.
There are other battles waiting to be fought, but thankfully, there are other women willing to fight. These women will do what so many aspiring Olympians do, and that’s fight to be the best in the world.
And while the pain of being excluded still stings, the love exhibited on Sunday afternoon went a long way toward healing any wounds inflicted by the battle.
That’s because while the rest of the world may have been slow to embrace them, Park City has always stood with them.
“This crowd has been with us through thick and thin,” said Alissa Johnson, who hopes to qualify for the team alongside her brother, who competed in 2010. “It was fun to just come out and celebrate how long we’ve been fighting to get here.”