A ski jumper needs to have just the right amount of crazy. Too much, you become a bobsledder. Too little, you never even try. Of the two U.S. women with real hopes to medal in the Sochi Games—the first Olympics to include women's ski jumping—one, 19-year-old reigning world champion Sarah Hendrickson, seems to excel because she's ethereal and light. The other, former champ Lindsey Van, 29, appears to defy gravity to escape a character that, even she admits, can be heavy and dark.
Last fall, Van was lounging around with teammates Jessica Jerome, Alissa Johnson, and Abby Hughes before the U.S. National Championships at the 90-meter "normal" hill in Lake Placid, New York—a slope Van had barreled down 5,000 times. All four women grew up together in Park City, Utah. All were dressed in kneesocks, tank tops, and underwear, waiting to pull on their aerodynamic foam jumpsuits until just before they walked outside. "I don't understand people who like running. I think there's something wrong with them," Van said, in her usual biting, funny, and authentic manner. "Ski jumping is annoying, too. But I haven't found anything I love more."
Van is a big reason women will be jumping in Sochi at all. The U.S. men have virtually no chance of medaling. But with three of the world's ten best jumpers on the women's team, the possibility of a ski-bootstrap, zero-to-hero narrative has turned them into media darlings. Adding to the drama is a fair bit of internal tension: Van dominated U.S. women's jumping for 15 years. Arguably she started it, at least at an elite level, by tagging along with the guys and jumping as well as they did. Van won the first women's world championships in 2009. For a year she held the record—105.5 meters, male or female—on the normal hill in Vancouver.
But she wrung herself out pushing the stodgy old men of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to allow women's ski jumping to join men's, an Olympic event since the first modern Winter Games, in 1924. Before the 2010 Vancouver Games, Van and Jerome, the third-best American, were the first of 15 international jumpers to sign on to a gender-discrimination lawsuit, arguing that they jumped nearly as far as the men (which they do); the IOC countered that the women's field wasn't deep enough (at the time, just 83 competitors from 14 countries; there are now 300 competitors from 18 countries). The women lost that round, a serious blow to Van. She sat out the 2010 season, then in 2011, after a roommate was diagnosed with leukemia, signed up for the National Marrow Donor Program and gave twice.
Later that year, the IOC finally relented. Women's ski jumping would have one Olympic event—the individual competition on the normal hill—compared with three for the men: the normal hill, the large hill, and the team event.
Meanwhile, Hendrickson glided into the sport on the tracks Van cut. Even before she turned ten, she was on posters that said THE FUTURE OF WOMEN'S SKI JUMPING. Hendrickson, not Van, won the first Women's World Cup, in 2012, and the world championships in 2013. Hendrickson, not Van, scored the lucrative sponsorships from Kellogg's, Nike, and Red Bull.
But then, while training in August, Hendrickson overjumped the hill and blew out the ligaments in her right knee. She knew the sport had risks. "A lot of jumpers claim that they're not scared," she told me before the accident. "But that's not really true."
Ski jumping is a weird hybrid, an unlikely mix of Nordic under-statement and epic flight. Athletes are scored on both distance and style. The ideal is a still body during flight and a bent-kneed telemark landing.
Contrary to how it looks from the ground, jumpers don't just zip down the ten-story Skee-Ball shoot, pop off the end of the ramp, and float through the sky. The sport is a master class in functional physics, an object lesson in converting potential to kinetic energy, a primer on optimal angle of attack.
For proof, just watch the kids on the novice hill, some as young as six. They muster all their bravery, point their skis downhill, then fall like chicks pushed out of a nest. The pros, by contrast—the best of whom tend to come from Northern Europe and Japan—are explosive and precise. In the span of ten seconds, the athlete shoots down what's called the in-run in squat position, thighs parallel to the ground, chest on knees to reduce wind resistance as she accumulates speed. Then she takes off, catapulting her body forward and up, never opening her chest so high that it creates unnecessary drag. Next is the flight—the athlete soaring headfirst, feet splayed, body tilting in a tight angle over the skis. For the landing, she extends her arms and bends her legs, aiming to gently meet the ground.
The mechanics of the sport favor both the skinny and the powerful. Hendrickson stands just over five foot three and weighs 94 pounds, with a body mass index of 16.5. Van, by contrast, is all muscle: she's five foot two and a half, weighs 130 pounds, and can leg-press 630. Most ski jumpers find that it's easier to soar by being light and lofty, like a paper airplane, than by building quads that can fire you into the air with the force of a cannonball.
As a result, eating disorders are a serious problem for both women and men. To discourage this, jumpers with BMIs below 21 are required to ride shorter skis, but the penalty isn't enough to make a healthy weight worthwhile competitively. Hendrickson's bony shoulders look worrisome. She admits she has to force herself to eat sometimes.
Ten minutes before the first round of jumps in Lake Placid, Van slipped on her suit and climbed the wooden stairs, steep as a Maya pyramid, to join the queue at the top of the ramp. Only 80 girls and women ages six and up ski-jump in the United States; 20 of them were here. (Admittedly, the IOC might have had a point about depth. Four jumpers—chosen at trials on December 29 and at coaches' discretion—will make up the U.S. Olympic squad. That's one in 20 participants.)
The mood on the hill was familial and restrained. Ski jumpers aren't interested in mirroring the gauche ruckus of the X Games. Many see even alpine skiers as debauched, hinting that they might do well to turn the après indulgences down a notch. In fairness, the view from the top does require a certain stoicism.
Sitting on the bar that serves as a starting block, the vista is a 300-foot drop to a landing zone of artificial turf. Yes, weirdly, in ski jumping snow is optional. Winter events like Sochi take place on snow, but otherwise the landing hill is a tilted football field of green plastic blades, each one two feet long and as thick as bucatini—excellent material for an all-weather hula skirt.
Every competitor jumped twice, sliding onto the bar, placing skis in the porcelain tracks, and waiting for Paolo Bernardi, then the U.S. coach, to lower his arm and shout, "Jump!" Accelerating down the incline, each woman sounded like a small plane on a rural runway. Then the world turned quiet as she launched herself, body prostrated for ten seconds in the sky.
If you grew up watching ABC's Wide World of Sports, you'll have etched into your permanent memory under the Agony of Defeat a 1970 fall by Slovenian Vinko Bogataj and thus be under the misimpression that ski jumpers crash all the time. This isn't true: crashes are rare. They are also less devastating than you might expect. The slope of the landing hill mirrors the jumper's flight, meaning a skier's body is rarely more than 10 or 12 feet off the ground.
Still, every competitor has an injury story. In 2006, Jerome blew out her knee; in 2004, she lacerated her spleen. Hughes, 24, tore a disk in her back in 2007. Van has had five knee operations; she broke six vertebrae in a skiing accident in 2009—and won the world championships two weeks later.
In 2005, Gian Franco Kasper, president of the FIS, declared the sport inappropriate "for ladies from a medical point of view," implying that women's knees might not be strong enough for the landing. The ladies are plenty strong, thank you very much. But, as in many sports, knees can blow out at inopportune moments. When Hendrickson crashed, she cried for five days straight. Upon waking from surgery, she had 22 weeks to prepare for the Sochi Games. But while she may be a featherweight (she dropped down to 89 pounds during her rehabilitation), she's no pushover. She rehabbed eight hours a day to hold on to her Olympic dream. By Thanksgiving, she was on track to jump in January.
Hendrickson stayed home when the nation's best lugers, skeleton sliders, bobsledders, and ski jumpers assembled in Lake Placid. The spartan Olympic Training Center there housed our national treasure in glutes. One afternoon, Nina Lussi, a 19-year-old from Lake Placid and one of two U.S. team jumpers not from Park City, was in the weight room when the bobsledders appeared. "They all came in wearing their booty shorts," said Lussi. "Spandex booty shorts. Scariest moment of my life."
The jumpers felt more comfortable in the huge basketball gym, bounding from a dead stop to the top of a shoulder-high stack of crash pads. As Jerome sat on Van's back to stretch it out, Lolo Jones entered with her 30 new pounds of bobsled muscle. Jerome declared that she'd had a girl-crush on Jones before anyone else in America had a girl-crush on Jones and plotted her approach.
"It's happening. Handshake! Handshake!" Van narrated.
Jerome returned triumphant. Soon Jones walked over to try the most fundamental ski-jump training move, the imitation.
"So break it down for me," Jones said, standing on a block face-to-face with the men's ski-jumping coach, who looked seriously undermatched. Jerome obliged: squat deep, lower your chest to your knees, explode up and out until your body is horizontal over the coach's head.
Jones's first jump was a flop: too vertical. Then she got a feel for the motion and the sport's allure. "You guys are like, 'Fuck long jump!' " she said. "Ski jumping's like long jumping, but you have to have balls."
Earlier in the summer, I'd attended Hendrickson's 19th-birthday lunch. The team toasted her as she ate half a Reuben sandwich. On good days they all interact like sisters, squishing into hotel rooms, squabbling over who's a slob and who's a neat freak, who might clip her cuticles incessantly and who might travel with a blankie. But even before her injury, success had started to splinter Hendrickson away. While Jerome and Johnson waitressed and Hughes worked as a nanny, she posed for photo shoots for Red Bull and Teen Vogue.
Hendrickson worried a bit about becoming like alpine star Lindsey Vonn, who was drawn away from her team by the media. Given the amount of attention—and money—she'd already received, she expected that the other girls might be envi-ous. "If they are, I completely understand," she told me. "I feel guilty. In that picture of us," she said, the one from the 2013 women's world championships, "I'm on their shoulders, alone at the top." Of course, that whole story line had veered off-script. To make it to Sochi, Hendrickson's recovery had to go exactly right every day. And even then she had to worry about current World Cup champion Sara Takanashi, the four-foot-eleven Japanese teen she'd beaten by only 1.5 meters in the world championships.
Almost nobody ski-jumps, but everyone has stuck a hand out of a car window, felt the lift, and wanted to fly. In the finals at Lake Placid, Van soared 96.5 meters, body perfectly still in her bright orange jumpsuit in the warm fall air. She beat second-place Jerome with ease, winning her 16th national championship.
This February, Van will jump in the competition that has eluded her all her life. But even after such a long and bumpy road, the podium is not what's motivating her. "Honestly, I thought I would have quit by now," she said. "But jumping's more addictive, and more difficult, than anything else."
Correspondent Elizabeth Weil is the author of the marriage memoir No Cheating, No Dying.