Jerome, Hendrickson, Van make team
The cause and the sport have been intertwined for so long in women's ski jumping that, at times, it seemed only fair that everyone who contributed should be able to enter the inaugural Olympic competition.
But that's not the way elite sport works, and so five women from Park City, Utah, who have operated as a team for many years saw their paths diverge Wednesday.
As expected, three women were named to the slots earned by the United States: reigning world champion Sarah Hendrickson, U.S. Olympic trials winner Jessica Jerome and, last but the opposite of least, 2009 world champion Lindsey Van, for whom the word "pioneer" is not hyperbole.
Two women they've trained with, lived with and linked arms with -- Alissa Johnson and Abby Hughes -- attended the team announcement knowing there was only a slight chance either would make the trip to Sochi. They'll find out Thursday, when other countries have to decide whether they will take all the entries they earned based on World Cup results.
Higher finishes on the World Cup circuit over a stretch that began in July 2012 could have guaranteed that fourth spot, but there were other factors in play.
Predictably, once the women gained Olympic status, some federations took notice and invested more in their programs; World Cup fields swelled to as high as 70 this season. The depth and national diversity of competition at the top may not be on a par with the men, whose sport has been in the Winter Games since their inception 90 years ago, but it has improved rapidly.
Of the 12 nations that qualified athletes for the Olympics, only two, Germany and Slovenia, captured the maximum four entries.
The numbers were further crunched by the fact that the women's field is capped at 30, compared to 70 for the men. Men have three shots at a medal -- normal (90-meter) hill, large (120-meter) hill and the team event -- while the women will jump on the normal hill only. As with the debut of women's boxing at London 2012, where three weight classes were contested as opposed to 10 for men, the International Olympic Committee elected to phase in rather than mandate equality.
"They're [the IOC] looking for quality over quantity, and I understand why they did that," Jerome told reporters. "I hope in the future there won't be a cap."
Each newly minted Olympian took a different route to selection.
Jerome clinched an automatic spot at trials in late December.
Hendrickson, who demolished her right knee in a training crash in August and underwent major reconstructive surgery, bulled her way through an accelerated rehab program that couldn't have gone more perfectly. She returned to jump training two weeks ago, and after being assessed by medical staff and Women's Ski Jumping USA coach Alan Alborn, she was made a discretionary selection.
If Hendrickson can approach top form by the Feb. 11 Olympic competition, she will contend for a medal. In her absence this season, Sara Takanashi of Japan has dominated the World Cup circuit.
"I'll definitely have to show up on my best day" to challenge Takanashi, Hendrickson said at a news conference after the announcement. She is limiting the number of training jumps she's doing but said her knee has responded well so far.
"At first, I was like, 'This is iffy,'" Van told reporters of the arduous comeback by Hendrickson, once her pupil and still her close friend. "Then a couple weeks into it, it was, 'This is definitely happening.' It's inspiring for me to see someone have that much love for what they're doing." Overcome by emotion, Van stopped and passed the microphone to Jerome.
Van jumped well enough over the past two seasons to claim the third spot and will complete a voyage that almost ran aground when she quit the sport three years ago, burned out by the contentious legal fight to get women into the Games.
"It's definitely been an emotional roller coaster, and I can't say we've gotten off that yet," Van said.
The team will skip the next two World Cups in Europe and remain in Park City until departing for Sochi.