- Associated Press - Friday, February 7, 2014

SOCHI, Russia (AP) - About the only thing that grounds America’s women ski jumpers is when they’re asked to talk about the men.

They shouldn’t have to much longer. Ninety years after men first started jumping for gold in the Olympics, women are finally getting their chance to soar.

“We waited a long time to be here,” Lindsey Van said. “I can’t wait to show everybody our sport.”

Van gets her chance to do just that Tuesday when the long struggle she helped spearhead becomes a reality and women take flight in the mountains outside Sochi. It’s a moment she and the other pioneers of the sport have waited a decade for, and they’re already basking in the moment.

“I’m just humbled and thrilled to be here,” U.S. teammate Jessica Jerome said. “It was a long, uphill battle.”

That the battle was finally won is largely due to Van, Jerome and a group of parents who wouldn’t stand still for the idea that their daughters couldn’t compete on the same jumps as men - and do it on the grand stage that is the Olympics.

Armed with a copy of “Nonprofit Kit for Dummies” they started an organization in 2003 to raise money for training and travel and would later file a discrimination lawsuit in Canada to force the IOC to include women’s ski jumping in the 2010 Vancouver Games.

The effort failed, but enough attention had been given to the cause of equality that the IOC finally relented in 2011 and included women’s ski jumping among a handful of new sports for the games in Sochi.

“It was essentially started by my mom complaining that something needed to change and something needed to be done,” Jerome said. “She sent my dad out the door and he went and bought a nonprofit dummies book and that turned into what today is Women’s Ski Jumping USA.”

Jerome, Van and reigning world champion Sarah Hendrickson are the U.S. medal hopefuls in a field of 30 that includes Japanese teen sensation Sara Takanashi. They will jump off the normal hill in Sochi, reaching speeds of up to 60 mph before soaring to what is hopefully a soft landing below.

Men and women go off different gates on the hill so comparisons are difficult, and none of the three U.S. jumpers was particularly eager to answer a question Friday about whether they could go further than men because of their size. Hard to blame them, since they and others have spent years trying to get women’s ski jumping recognition as a sport of its own.

“One of the biggest things we do as ski jumpers is to try and separate ourselves from the men,” Jerome said.

That’s not always so easy, especially in a sport that for years has struggled to gain legitimacy and overcome outdated stereotypes. An International Ski Federation official in 2005 suggested that women were unfit from a medical point of view to jump, and Russia’s men’s ski jumping coach Alexander Arefyev said in an interview last month that he is against women competing in the sport.

“I do not advocate women’s ski jumping. It is quite heavy and traumatic,” Arefyev said in an interview published in the Russian newspaper Izvestia. “If a man were seriously injured, it is not fatal, but women may end up far worse. … Women have a different purpose - to have children, do housework, to create a family home.”

The purpose of the women in Sochi is to win gold, and Hendrickson is the best hope the U.S. has to beat Takanashi for the medal. Hendrickson could be the favorite herself, but she’s coming off surgery five months ago for a torn ACL and didn’t resume jumping until last month.

That might actually take some pressure off the 19-year-old, who has struggled with nerves and confidence despite winning 13 World Cup events, including nine in the 2011-12 season alone.

“I’m kind of the underdog now,” Hendrickson said. “My goal was to make it to Sochi and I accomplished that. Before this injury I would have had tons of pressure on me.”

There is still pressure, though, because they are representing their country and this is the Olympics.

An Olympics like no other for women ski jumpers who are finally getting their chance.

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