U.S. women's ski jumpers won't compete in the Beijing Olympics. They failed to qualify
American women helped lead the international fight to include women's ski jumping in the Winter Olympics, and the U.S. team was once ranked No. 1 in the world.
But in a major blow to the program, American women failed to garner enough points in qualifying competitions to send any athletes to the Beijing Games.
"It's disappointing because all of us want to be Olympians," said Anna Hoffmann, 21, who won the U.S. women's ski jumping trials last month in Lake Placid, N.Y.
Hoffmann said U.S. women, who since 2017 have competed under the umbrella of the USA Nordic Sport organization, are in a period of rebuilding after seeing many of their veteran athletes retire after the 2018 Winter Olympics.
"We're a developing, growing team and we're more focused on the long shot of it," she said after it became clear she would not go to Beijing.
Bill Demong, an Olympic gold medalist who heads USA Nordic, told NPR American women have fallen behind the standard of competition set by women from Germany, Japan and Norway.
"When I think about whether or not we send a woman to these Games [in Beijing], athletically we're not quite ready yet anyway," Demong said.
He said the USA women's jumping program has stabilized and improved since merging with his organization four years ago.
"We have a very focused national organization working with thirty clubs across the country from Alaska to New Hampshire, developing everything on an equal and equitable playing field."
A long fight, and now a disappointment
But for the U.S. ski jumpers who helped lead the fight to compete in the Olympics this moment is painful.
"It consumed everything," said Jessica Jerome, who finished in 10th place at the Sochi Olympics in 2014, the first Winter Games where women competed.
Beginning in the early 2000s, Jerome's family and other supporters cobbled together what she describes as a "ragtag" effort to champion gender equality and inclusion at the Olympics.
"My mom was pissed because ... I didn't get to do what the guys did," she said. "My dad went and bought a Nonprofits for Dummies book."
Working from their kitchen tables, athletes and their parents formed a ski jumping team that began competing around the world.
At the same time they lobbied sports organizations and joined lawsuits demanding a place at the Winter Olympics.
"Not ... appropriate for ladies from a medical point of view"
Opposition to their grassroots effort was fierce in those early days, especially among powerful sports officials in Europe who insisted female jumpers weren't good enough for the Olympics.
"If you have a field now with ladies competitions with let's say 30 girls, [only] four or five of them really jump," said Gian Franco Kaspar, then head of the International Ski Federation.
In a 2005 interview with NPR and North Country Public Radio, Kaspar — who died last summer — argued that women were too fragile to go off the big jumps.
"Don't forget it's like jumping down ... on the ground about a thousand times a year," Kaspar said, "which seems not to be appropriate for ladies from a medical point of view."
But Jerome and other women in the U.S. and around the world kept lobbying and filing lawsuits. They also kept jumping, and the Americans kept getting better, ranking No. 1 in the world in competitions in 2012.
A breakthrough in 2014: "All the girls ... are just smiling."
Then in 2014, women were finally permitted to compete in jumping events at the Winter Games in Sochi. Speaking with NPR after her final jump that year, Jerome said "all the girls from all the countries are just smiling."
Women ski jumpers say they still don't have full equality. There are fewer jumping events for women and fewer women are allowed to compete.
Still, the U.S. qualified three women again for the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics in 2018.
Since then, the team has struggled. Over the past 12 months in qualifying events around the world, the team failed to win a slot for even a single athlete in Beijing.
Jerome believes the organization that formed to support women jumpers in their bid for inclusion failed to pivot to the recruiting and training of young athletes.
"There was so much focus on getting to this end goal which was the Olympics that once we got there, everybody was tired," she said.
Jerome believes the new generation of U.S. women's jumpers includes talented athletes, but they haven't kept pace with women in Germany, Japan and Norway.
"They're just not at the level that the Olympics are at. It just keeps getting better and better."
Playing catch-up won't be easy. Other countries' teams benefit from better fundraising, more media exposure, and public support.
Bill Demong, head of USA Nordic, acknowledged finding money to support women's jumpers and take them to the next level will be even harder now that they're on the sidelines in Beijing.
If there's a consolation for American women who fought to crack open the Winter Olympics, it's the conviction that their team will rebuild eventually.
They'll also watch competition in Beijing that's expected to include the best women ski jumpers ever, a sign the sport is building strength.
"You know, we were kind of this ragtag group of girls [from all over the world] who were constantly told no," Jerome said.
"So when I watch the Olympics this year I'm still going to see my friends there. Unfortunately, they're not going to be any of my American friends."
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