KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia — Only Germany’s Carina Vogt could stand on the top step of the podium, her fist in the air, as history’s first Olympic champion of women’s ski jumping.
The more important victory, however, belonged to all of the women competing in the inaugural event at RusSki Gorki Jumping Center Tuesday night.
That’s because before they fought against each other for the first-ever Olympic medals in their sport, they fought together against those who refused to let them participate.
“We can call ourselves Olympians now, and I couldn’t do that yesterday,” said American Lindsey Van after finishing 15th in Tuesday’s historic event. “I’m happy I stuck around, and I didn’t think I would see this day. So the fact that the Olympics have happened, and I am actually at a high enough level that I can be here is, well, I impress myself.”
The laughter that followed her joke indicated a shift in Van and the sport. They are no longer the tragic story of people left out and discriminated against simply because of their gender. After fighting in every way possible, including a lawsuit, the women are now simply athletes competing for their country like all their fellow Olympic teammates.
“It was a great experience,” said a playful Van after watching Vogt surprise just about everyone. “The best experience ever, a lot of emotion. I’m surprised I didn’t cry. I only fell over skiing, so that was a plus.”
While the 22-year-old Vogt, who earned 247.4 points for her two jumps, celebrated, the heavy gold-medal favorite was heartbroken. Japan's Sara Takanashi, 17, had been battling it out with Daniela Iraschko-Stolz throughout the training sessions. The 30-year-old Austrian Iraschko-Stolz managed to earn silver with 246.2 points, but Takanashi finished fourth earning 243 points, while France’s Coline Mattel earned bronze with 245.2 points.
“I can’t find the right words,” said Vogt, who’s never won a World Cup, finishing second four times — twice to Takanashi. “I’m just speechless because training yesterday was not so good. Now I’ve improved today. I wouldn’t have imagined (the win) one day before.”
Neither would anyone else — although Van said she saw it in the fall.
Last year Takanashi and American Sarah Hendrickson battled back and forth and were often No. 1 and 2. Takanashi won the overall World Cup title, while Hendrickson won the world championship.
Hendrickson said she felt for her rival for missing out on a medal.
“I’m very surprised,” she said. “The Olympics is an amazing event that tests the toughness of the mind. You can train for years and years and years and years, but it’s those 10 seconds that you have to be strongest mentally. I’m pretty bummed out for her because I just want her to know how amazing she really is.”
Hendrickson’s victory was simply being physically capable of competing in the games after she tore both her ACL and MCL in August. She said she realized during training that just participating was going to have to be enough.
“I’m just proud to be here and proud to be part of this first one,” she said. Hendrickson had no World Cup points so she jumped first — usually not something an athlete would consider an honor.
In this case, she was thrilled once she realized what it meant.
“I was the first woman to jump in the Olympics,” she said. “It’s an honor to open up this competition for the 29 girls behind me, and I think we put on an awesome show tonight.”
Jessica Jerome led the U.S. team with a 10th-place finish, and she was the only one disappointed with her individual performance.
“I know if I had done what I was doing a week and a half ago in Park City, I would have been up there on medals,” she said. “It just didn’t happen for me today. It’s unfortunate, but I guess just being able to be here and share this with all of my friends and competitors, that’s I guess a really awesome consolation prize. We have arrived. We are hard-working, we’re dedicated and we’re good at what we do.”
Jerome said she deliberately avoided thinking about the history made Tuesday night so she could focus on competing her best.
Her experience, “as simply as I can, it was fun,” she said. “It was a lot of fun. I didn’t perform to the best of my ability. But I’m still happy strangely. I think everyone is.”
That’s because it took so long and often required so much away from the snow for the women simply to have the opportunity.
Van said she doesn’t care if any of the budding young ski jumping stars know or appreciate what skiers like she and Jerome sacrificed so they could compete for their countries. And, as she points out, all of the women have in some way helped blaze the trail, even if it’s only in how skilled they have become at a sport many said they were not physically able to handle.
“I’ve been jumping with (Iraschko-Stolz) since 1998,” said Van. “She deserves a lot of this piece of the pie ... and she deserves to be up there. I don’t want people to have to think about that anymore.”
Competing in the first-ever event, Van said, was the easiest part of her journey.
“I feel way better now and more relieved than (in) my whole career,” she said. “It actually feels for the first time in my life that I’m living right now and not talking about what I’m going to do. I’m here; and that in itself is a relief and makes me extremely happy. Somebody just won the Olympics.”