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Sixteen-year-old Emilee Anderson doesn't have a driver's license, but she's been going over 55 miles per hour for years -- on the ski jumping hill. The quiet girl from Eau Claire, Wis., is so good at launching her tiny 5-foot-3, 115-pound frame through the air, assuming the perfect V form with her skis and sticking the slippery, snowy landing that she earned a spot at the first-ever Winter Youth Olympic Games, an international multisport event (think Olympics for teens) that kicked off in Innsbruck, Austria, on Jan. 13 and will continue through this weekend.
As if competing in these inaugural Games (to be held every four years) weren't enough, Anderson and 13 other female competitors from around the world are making history participating in a sport that had been closed to women at the Olympics. Thanks to the efforts of female ski jumpers such as Lindsey Van (a 13-time U.S. national champion), who battled the International Olympics Committee for more than a decade, the sport will finally be included in the Games, starting with this youth event. A ski jump event that will not make an appearance at Sochi 2014 is the mixed team competition, which Anderson and her two male teammates have on their radar Saturday morning. This will be Anderson's second attempt at medaling since her individual jump last Saturday.
She's not the kind of person who is up there thinking, 'I'm gonna win.' She's winning competitions because she's that good, and she's going to get a lot better.” -- Coach Brian Nelson
Chatting with Anderson just hours after her first international competition, it's hard to tell if the monumental moment has sunk in yet. The soft-spoken high school sophomore, who tells me she's missing finals to be here, is happy she made it into the top 10 (she placed ninth), but she doesn't dwell on it. Instead, she tells me how she likes that she can practice the German she's learning in school here, and how hard it's been balancing her schoolwork with competition. Though she's been ski jumping since age 5 (following in the footsteps of her older sister, Elizabeth), she jumped into this elite scene only last winter, when she came in second at junior nationals.
"She's not the kind of person who is up there thinking, 'I'm gonna win,'" said her longtime coach, Brian Nelson, who heads up the St. Paul Ski Club, an hour-and-a-half drive from Anderson's home. "She's winning competitions because she's that good, and she's going to get a lot better." Anderson joined the VISA development team of Women's Ski Jumping USA after winning tryouts in Lake Placid, N.Y., last October. She soared to an impressive 79 and 85.5 meters on the normal hill (90m).
"She was very, very humbled by it," Nelson said about Anderson's invitation to join the team and compete at the first Winter Youth Olympics. "She was given all this gear: helmet, goggles and lenses. She never had the greatest equipment, so getting all this free stuff ... it was pretty cool to see her face. She was almost blushing."
Though the event last Saturday took place on a hill similar to the one in Lake Placid, Anderson's first jump wasn't strong (just 59.5m). She fought back on her second jump, scoring 65.5m. "I tried to clear my mind and not think too much. I was more focused the second jump," Anderson admitted.
"Had she had two jumps like that second one, she would have probably made the top five," says Greg Poirier, coach for the U.S. Nordic team at the Youth Olympic Games. "My gut tells me she will continue to make leaps and bounds over the next year or two, with an outside shot of challenging for one of the final spots on the Olympic team for Sochi. Because she's not loud or boisterous, people are not going to pay her a lot of attention. But pretty soon, they're going to ask, 'Where did this young Emilee Anderson come from?'"
In the meantime, Anderson will enjoy hanging out in the Olympic Village, chatting with her new international friends and exploring Austria with her mom and sis, who've joined her on the across-the-world adventure. But before she returns home to her awaiting school finals, the daily strength-training sessions in her basement to music (anything but country and Beiber) and her close friends on the Eau Claire Flying Eagles local ski jumping club, she's got one more competition this Saturday at 8:30 a.m. ET: the mixed team event.
Anderson, male ski jumper Will Rhoads and Nordic combined athlete Colton Kissell (both from Park City, Utah) will each jump to create a combined score. "It's an event that's never been done before and will not be added to the Olympic program -- it's more for fun at the Youth Games," Poirier said. The teams to beat will be Japan, Germany and Slovenia, the top three finishers in the women's individual ski jumping event. And if Anderson sticks to her motto -- "Try to do better each time" -- and continues to jump well as she has this week during training sessions, she may be looking at another top-10 finish or better. Like the female pioneers of her sport, she's ready to fly.