SOCHI, Russia — Jessica Jerome was 7 years old when the local ski club visited her school to promote ski jumping as an after-school activity. Jessica went home and excitedly told her folks she wanted to try it. The idea did not go over very well.
“They both said ‘No. No way,’ ” Jerome recalled.
Jerome’s mother said people had told her the sport was for men. Her father had visions of the iconic ‘Agony of Defeat’ scene at the start of the old Wide World of Sports show, where a wayward jumper ski jumper goes crashing into an ignominious heap.
Who wants that for their child? Most parents agonize about their daughter falling off her first two-wheel bike. Sailing 300 feet through the year off the side of a mountain? How about playing with Olympic Barbie instead?
But Jessica persisted, and her parents relented. She soon became one of the best female jumpers in the winter sports mecca of Park City, Utah. By the age of 15, she was a “hamster” jumper who did the jumps before the men to make sure it was safe.
Her parents went from overprotective skeptics to Jessica’s most fervent supporters. Her mother, Barbara, became a ski jump volunteer. Her father, Peter, bought a “Non-Profit for Dummies” book to start a foundation to raise money for a women’s ski jump team.
“The gender equity fight was essentially started by my mom complaining that something needed to change and something needed to be done,” Jerome said Friday. “She sent my dad out the door. He bought that book, which turned into what is today women’s Ski Jumping USA.
“Both my parents are tremendously supportive of me,” said Jerome, who turned 27 on Saturday. “They really believe everyone should have a chance to succeed at whatever they want to do, and they showed that they really believe that.”
But the Jeromes found there were a lot of people out there saying ‘No’ to women’s ski jumping. The sport had discriminated against women from the time a Norwegian army officer named Olaf Rye did the first recognized jump 200 years ago, leaping 9.5 meters in front of his fellow soldiers.
Ski jumping was part of the original Winter Olympics in Chamonix, France, in 1924.
Women were not welcome. It stayed that way for 86 years. While women gradually broke through in other winter sports, the doors of ski jumping remained close. But the women kept trying to kick them open.
Female ski jumpers petitioned to get into every Winter Games from 1998 onward. The IOC rejected them, though ski jumping was the only Olympic sport restricted to men. In 1991, the IOC ruled that all future sports must be open to both genders, but the rule didn’t apply to existing sports.
Meanwhile, Peter Jerome’s non-profit helped construct an elite women’s program that helped another Park City woman, Lindsey Van, to the first female world championship in 2009. That year, Van and nine other women sued the Vancouver Olympic organizers for banning female jumpers.
A court in British Columbia shot down the suit, contending that the Canadians had no right to determine Olympic policy. But in time, the international ski federation softened its stance, creating a World Cup circuit for women. The Olympics admitted women in the normal hill only (the men also jump on the large hill and in a team event).
So on Tuesday morning, women will compete in ski jumping for the first time.
Jerome, who won the first U.S. women’s ski jump trials in December, will be there. Van, 29, will be there. So will Sarah Henderickson, 19, the reigning world champion and gold medal favorite before she tore up her knee last August.
“We’ve waited a long time to be here,” Van said, “and I can’t wait to show everybody our sport and to show them what we can do. I’m just really, really excited about that and looking forward to it.”
They have every right to be resentful. The IOC can’t move fast enough to admit extreme sports that are rising in popularity and appeal to a young, upscale demographic. Ski and snowboard slopestyle didn’t have to wait long to get in, or ski halfpipe or snowboard parallel slalom.
“Yeah, they are putting those sports in,” Jerome said, her voice rising before she shifted to diplomatic mode. “But it’s a good thing. I see our fight, if you will, as getting our foot in the door for all the other sports. Athletes in other sports deserve to be here just as much as we do, and I’m glad they didn’t have the struggle that we did.”
Van is seen as the pioneering force, the one who stood up to the IOC as the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit. But she seems reluctant to discuss the politics of the women’s fight, and more interested in being seen an Olympic competitor. They won an uphill battle. Now they go down the hill.
“As far as it being history, it’s hard for me to think about it like that,” Van said. “I’m definitely focused on being an athlete. It’s hard for me to look at the big picture. It’s humbling and it’s a lot to take in. I try to take one jump at a time, to keep it small and simple.
“I just want people to see more women ski jumpers,” she said. “It’s the oldest sport in the Olympics, and it’s taken 90 years to be here. So ... check us out.”