Fulfilling a dream

Group of dedicated female ski jumpers hope to push sport to the Olympic level

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— Under Wednesday's blue skies and beating sun, Jessica Jerome took off Howelsen Hill's 90-K jump, soared 89 meters and landed with a solid thud.

The 15-year-old girl had made a statement without saying a word.

Amid the stories of lost World Cups and retired coaches, Park City's Jerome was among the talk of the town at last week's Chevy Trucks U.S. National Championships. Jerome's 89-meter jump and Thursday's 109-meter jump off the 120-K were hard to miss and their implications even harder to ignore.

Although Jerome and her teammate Lindsey Van are undoubtedly the top women ski jumpers in the country, Jerome claims to be among the top 10 of all ski jumpers at the junior development level.

"Watching Jessica at the bottom of the hill is definitely a huge statement," Val Logsdan said. "If we can do that and do that in enough numbers, the FIS won't be able to pretend that (women's ski jumping) doesn't exist."

As a former president and as someone who is currently on the board of directors of Park City's National Sports Foundation, Logsdan is working toward the inclusion of women's ski jumping at the club, national and international levels. But she said it is going to take girls like Jerome, competing at the elite level and comparable to men, before the International Ski Federation will take notice.

Women's ski jumping has gradually been increasing in both numbers and ability, but it is far behind its male counterpart. Ski jumping is the only sport in the Winter Olympics without a female equivalent and the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association does not support a women's ski jumping team.

Logsdan's 9-year-old daughter, Annie, is among the14 girls in the Park City ski jumping program. With the group of girls accounting for about a third of Park City's total after-school program, fostering female jumpers is an evident goal of Park City.

"It is something that our board takes very seriously. It's on the top of the list of priorities at the club," Logsdan said. "Our girls are good and deserve funding. As a parent, you can't do this forever."

Right now at the Park City club level, Logsdan's daughter might find equality. But the same is not true for the older girls. Unlike the boys, once the girls reach the elite level, they do not have the backing of the USSA for the expenses of skis, international travel and coaches.

Money matters

As ski jumper Liz Szotyori was walking out of Olympian Hall after Thursday's U.S. National Championships awards ceremony, she began organizing plans for the girls to pull together a pot of money for next year.

That way the female ski jumpers could get a check for their podium finishes. One, five, 10 dollars it didn't matter to Szotyori; all she wanted was the recognition of the check.

Szotyori and four other female ski jumpers had just sat through an hour-and-a-half ceremony that had the top male ski jumpers receiving $1,200 checks.

The girls were honored with wooden plaques.

"It is not about the money," Szotyori said. "But it would be nice if we were somewhere equal to the guys. We're not getting the financial help, and that's discouraging."

Money does matter and finding it is key to the future of women's ski jumping.

The younger female ski jumpers at Park City, as do the 14 female ski jumpers at the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club, have the same resources as the boys. But what the girls do not have is the support once they get to the elite level.

While male ski jumpers might have to cover expenses running from $3,000 to $5,000 a year in the period just before making the U.S. Team, once they are on the team, costs are shared with the USSA.

But there is not a U.S. Team or the prospect of fewer expenses for the girls.

"It's really hard and really expensive. It's not like Alpine, where it's an expensive sport to get into and you need three pairs of skis," Szotyori said. "But at the (elite level) it's not well known and we don't have the sponsors to pay for the travel and skis."

And the emergence of women's ski jumping comes at a time when the USSA is making budget cuts in a sport where all but the best ski jumpers are just making ends meet.

Todd Wilson, the head of the Winter Sports Club's Nordic and ski jumping program, said with tight budgets, it is going to take time for women to make it in the sport.

"You have to be the best in the world to actually make out (in male ski jumping)," Wilson said. "The best you can hope for is cutting costs. The girls are going to have to do that for a while. They are not going to wake up one day in a bed of roses. It's going to take time to evolve. People don't change overnight."

Steamboat's Kathi Meyer, who has been involved with ski jumping as the competition secretary for the U.S. Nordic Combined Team, said corporate sponsors are women's ski jumping's greatest hope.

"Who is supporting women's sports?" Meyer asked. "We need corporate sponsors so that the men aren't worried that they're taking money away from the program."

As a girl who had to grow up enviously watching her brothers play little league baseball, Meyer said she would like to see the women on equal footing. And she would like to see them get checks next year at the National Championships.

Women ski jumpers believe it won't happen soon, but they would like to be part of the USSA.

"(The USSA) gives a little bit to the men, but we just get nothing," said Alissa Johnson, a 14-year-old from Park City. "We want to be a part of that, it would help out. But only once we get to be in the Olympics will it get to be that way."

The group of Johnson, Szotyori and Jerome said it is not likely the USSA would support a women's ski jumping team until they are validated as an Olympic sport.

But it's a long road to the Olympics, a road that will take more female ski jumpers, higher-quality jumps and, of course, money.

A numbers game

The trio of Johnson, Szotyori and Jerome believe the Olympics won't happen without women and women won't ski jump without the Olympics.

"It's a bunch of catch-22s," Szotyori said.

Meyer, Wilson and Logsdan agree that the Olympics will come only once participation increases.

Wilson said it's going to take time for the women's program to grow. In its second year, the Women's U.S. National Ski Jumping Championships drew five women, compared to the more than 70 male competitors. And while Wilson said it would help to have more clubs offer ski jumping to women, his other recommendations for its growth are the same he would give to the growth of ski jumping in general more facilities, changing jumps to plastic and giving college scholarships to ski jumpers.

"For the Olympics, I think there is an excellent chance. But before that can happen, there needs to be more participation," Wilson said. "We need to encourage (ski jumping) and offer this to girls. It's a numbers game right now. And it's not going to be an Olympic event without participation."

Although the Winter Sports Club's Little Vikings Program has 14 girls learning to ski jump, Wilson said that number has gone only up in the past three years when the program started.

Before that, Steamboat had a handful of girls, but they never got past the age of 14 or 15. Wilson pointed to a number of reasons for girls dropping out of the program, a combination of having a lack of places to compete, the draw of other sports with more college opportunities and the lack of other girls in the sport.

"We have a few girls that have been in and out of the sport. But when you get to a certain point, there is nowhere to go," the 22-year-old Szotyori said.

Until more women participate, Johnson, Szotyori and Jerome will continue to compete against each other and with the men. Because FIS-sanction races require three or more females to create a women's division, when the numbers are not there, the girls are matched up with the boys.

While ski jumping might be behind the trend of the once male-dominated sports of soccer and hockey that are now widely popular among girls, it is not an excuse for why it should not become more equalized, supporters say.

"Sports are so important to all kids. You learn so many cool things," Wilson said. "It doesn't matter what arena you're doing the sports in. You're setting goals, falling on your face and getting back up. There is no reason in the world that guys are more capable than girls to learn those lessons."

Johnson, Szotyori and Jerome might learn more lessons than the average young athlete as they pave the way for future female ski jumpers. And they all claim it's not the prospect of money, fame or Olympic glory that sends them back to the top of the ski jump to fly down the large hills time and time again.

"It's all about having fun," Jerome said. "I'm doing what I love. It's that high adrenaline rush."

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