Three years ago USSA made the decision to support a fledging international US Women’s Jumping program, a risky decision given the stage of development of the sport on the world stage. But the move paid off when Lindsey Van won the first-ever Women’s Ski Jumping World Championship Gold Medal in Liberec this past winter.
But now Van, and her US teammates are struggling to find funding after USSA decided not to name a US Women’s Jumping Team for the upcoming season.
This wasn’t an issue of performance as Van also finished 4th in the overall Continental Cup standings (there is currently no FIS World Cup for Women’s Ski Jumping, but the Continental Cup series features the top athletes in the world), and teammates Alissa Johnson, Jessica Jerome, and Sarah Hendrickson were 14th, 17th, and 19th in those standings. All four women had at least one podium finish during the season. The results are there, and the ski community celebrated Van’s Gold, the first ever by either a man or a woman in US Jumping history. The real issue is the Olympics.
Last year, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) refused Women’s Ski Jumping request for inclusion in the 2010 Olympic Games. After efforts by an international group of women jumpers failed to alter the ruling, the same group filed a lawsuit against the Vancouver Olympic Organizing Committee (VANOC), claiming discrimination. The lawsuit is pending, with no date set for a final ruling. So at this moment Women’s Jumping will not be an event in Vancouver, and the US Ski team has an explicit goal of winning Olympic Gold Medals.
According to USSA Nordic Director John Farra, the decision to not name a Team is about the Olympics, and only the Olympics. With a an economic recession and budget cuts across the board, USSA could not justify funding a program that would not be at the Olympics.
Farra called the situation “one of the hardest things to deal with” since coming to USSA, and is quick to point out that this is not a permanent situation. There is even a plan and budget in place if the lawsuit is settled in the jumpers’ favor and the sport is contested in Vancouver. He also made it clear that the team was not “cut.” All US Ski Teams are named on a yearly basis. At this point no Women’s Jumping Team has been named, and most likely won’t be until next year, but USSA remains the National Governing Body for the sport, with Farra performing a range of administrative tasks ranging from National Ranking lists to overseeing domestic competition.
Van expressed significant frustration with the situation. “After such an amazing year for ski jumping it was really a surprise. This was the first medal in an Olympics or World Championship in ski jumping, so I expected more from the Ski Team. I understand their financial reasoning, but it still does not add up in my head.”
Farra said he is doing all he can to support the athletes in other ways, stating that from his perspective, the top women “are on the National Team.” Six women jumpers are on the USST equivalent list These athletes have access to the new Center of Excellence in Park City and US Olympic Training Centers, and Farra will provide uniforms and is working with USSA partners to help with funding.
Looking For Funds
But there is now a large budget gap to make up, and at the end of the day it is all about the money. The non-profit, Women’s Ski Jumping USA (WSJUSA) is trying to raise funds to support the jumpers for next season. According to Jerome, they need $150,000, a number that includes travel budget, hill fees, equipment, and perhaps most importantly, the salary of coach Kjell Ivar Magnussen, the Norwegian hired to run the program three years ago. Magnussen is considered one of the top coaches in the world. Currently WSJUSA is retaining Magnussen, but more money is desperately needed.
Said Van “Keeping Kjell Ivar Magnussen is very important for our team. Without him, I fear things could fall apart. He is a great leader with great ideas, and we need to keep him with our team.”
Jerome recognizes that this was not a simple decision for USSA, saying “I do know that it’s difficult to bring in money for a team that may not have an Olympic event going into an Olympic year. What I do know is that there were a lot of people at the Ski Team that worked extremely hard to continue their financial support. Even though USST “cut” the program, they are still being supportive in every way they can. It’s not the first hurdle we have had to overcome.”
WSJUSA has provided significant funding to support Women’s Ski Jumping over the past years, often working in conjunction with USSA. For example, for Junior World Championships, USSA funds the coach while WSJUSA funds the athletes. But now WSJUSA will be responsible for everything.
“Most importantly,” continues Jerome, “the money we hope to raise will go towards continuing a development program and working to promote the sport at the grassroots level. We are currently planning fundraisers and accepting any donations. At this point, nothing is too small.”
With the lawsuit and uncertainty surrounding the Olympics and now the loss of funding, US Women’s Jumpers are understandably frustrated.
“In the U.S., when it comes to most winter sports, the public only sees Olympic medals,” says Jerome. “Very few people, unless they are avid ski fans, have an understanding of the significance of an overall World Cup title or a World Championship medal. In Europe, the ski culture is more in tune with events outside of Olympic years.”
Farra concurs, adding that at the end of the day it is really all about Olympic medals. Sponsors and fans alike see the Olympics as the highest standard and the true measurement of success in the US – this despite the fact that World Championship fields are at least as strong as Olympic fields.
Van finds the distinction hard to understand. “This is America, and here in America, Olympic medals count, not World Championship medals. The general public and USSA don’t value Olympic medals and World Championship medals the same. Throughout the rest of the skiing world they are…so it is hard for me to understand the values given to certain events.”
She continues, “These obstacles do make me rethink my involvement in the sport. How are we supposed to move forward when you do all you can, and we are not being rewarded as in other sports? It is extremely hard to stay in a sport, where we now have to find private funding, or fund ourselves. No other sport with this level of success is in this position.”
Jerome hopes to persevere and take the sport to a new level, both domestically and internationally.
“We have had quite a few ups and downs in the sport as a whole. If anything, it brings the team closer together and drives us harder. Generally, if you don’t have to work hard for something, it isn’t worth having. As a team, not only do we want to change the mentality the sport has had in the past few decades, we want to ensure that it stays that way for future generations. A lot of people don’t realize the struggle goes far deeper than just being on the hill. If it weren’t for our supporters, we would not be where we are today.”
And despite the challenges, Van is not ready to give up. “I still love the sport, and that is what keeps me involved. I am not doing it for the money, the fame or any of that. I do it for the pure love of flying and the unique qualities of the sport.”
Farra repeatedly stated his respect and admiration for how the US jumpers have managed each of the challenges they have encountered. “They have been remarkable, I’m really proud of how they have handled all of this,” he said.
For more information on Women’s Ski Jumping in the US, and to support the athletes, visit the WSJUSA website at www.womensskijumpingusa.com.
Topher Sabot is the editor of FasterSkier.