Alissa Johnson of Park City, Utah, is the No. 10 ski jumper in the world. But because a court upheld the Olympics' refusal for women to compete, she roots for her brother and waits.
WHISTLER, B.C. —
Alissa Johnson’s favorite part of ski jumping is letting go of the start bar atop of the scary-steep, narrow tower.
Jumpers reach speeds of 50 mph before liftoff. But it’s not the speed she likes best. It’s the commitment.
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“You do so many things in life where you can stop yourself and turn around and if you’re scared you don’t have to go through with it,” Johnson said, standing at the bottom of the Olympic ski jump on a sun-splashed Friday morning during large-hill qualifications. “But in jumping, the second you let go of that bar, there’s no way to stop yourself. There’s no backing out.”
Johnson, 22, from Park City, Utah, knows about commitment. She is the world’s No. 10 woman ski jumper. She’d be jumping here if she could.
But women were denied a spot in the 2010 Olympics when Canada’s highest court ruled the Olympic calendar was up to the International Olympic Committee, not the Olympic hosts.
IOC Chief Jacques Rogge has argued that not enough nations participate in the sport, and there’s not enough depth among women. Another sticking point: to make room for the women, the men would have to give up some Olympic starting spots.
Ski jumping and nordic combined, which pairs jumping and cross-country skiing, are the only Winter Olympic sport without a female competition.
So on Friday, Johnson watched her brother, Anders, and the best in the world fly down a hill she has jumped herself. But it’s hard to grouse at an Olympics.
“Obviously, it’s unfortunate in my situation that I can’t be here as an athlete,” she said, “but (I’m) coming up here, not only as a spectator but a supporter of my brother. It’s the biggest party in the world right now.”
After Anders was finished — hampered by an injured knee, he managed a jump of only 117.0 meters to miss qualifying for the top 40 — they both stood at the bottom of the landing hill, as close as spectators could get to the action.
Alissa Johnson has been has been jumping since she was 5. Her father, Alan, is a former U.S. ski team program director in jumping and nordic combined. She trains year-round, competes all winter, and works in a restaurant to try to make ends meet.
“I’m my sister’s biggest supporter; she’s the same with me. We’ve always wanted to compete in the Olympics together,” said Anders Johnson, 20. “It just isn’t there yet. They have enough competitors. They don’t have enough good competitors.”
His sister and other supporters argue they have more participation among women than other sports already in the Olympics, like ski cross, and that the talent is there. Johnson has jumped 132 meters, which would have tied her for 14th in qualifying Friday.
Johnson and U.S. teammates were invited to be trial jumpers during the Games. But they put their foot down, and it wasn’t in a telemark landing.
“I said, ‘Absolutely not,’ ” said Johnson, sounding peeved that some Canadian women are participating. “In a movement as a whole, there’s no way you can get me to go up there and trial jump for the boys when I feel like I deserve a chance at a medal.
“I feel like it’s kind of selling yourself short. It’s saying that you’re OK with being a test jumper. I understand wanting the experience jumping and wanting to be here. (But) why fight for something if you’re going to just turn around and lay down?”
The women ski jumpers are charging ahead, hoping to be accepted for the 2014 Games in Russia. .
They face daunting challenges. The U.S. women jumpers saw their funding cut — mostly because of the economy — about the time they were barred from the Games.
But the campaign remains alive. A Finnish TV news station trailed Johnson with a camera Friday. She did several newspaper interviews.
The Olympics have triggered $5,000 in donations through the Web site www.wsjusa.com.
Johnson isn’t sure she’ll be jumping in 2014, taking it year by year. She is taking college courses to become a nurse. Being a pioneer can be draining. So she is scraping for funding each season while training full-time.
But the view from below on Friday was tantalizing.
“At this point, I love jumping, and I will continue to jump as long as I care for it,” she said. “The second you stop having fun, it’s not worth it.”