Jessica Jerome flips for felines

Courtesy of Jessica Jerome

"When I'm on the road, my teammates will say how they miss their boyfriend or mom, and I'll say how I miss my cats," Jessica Jerome said.

No matter how high and how far Jessica Jerome launches her 5-foot-5, 119-pound frame off the hill into the crisp mountain air, the ski jumper always lands on her feet, er, skis.

Perhaps it's this cat-like reflex that bonds her to her feline friends.

"This is ridiculous, but a few years ago, when I was going through a tough breakup, I would go to an animal adoption center multiple times a week and just play with kittens. It made me so happy," Jerome said.

Traveling across the country and around the globe, racking up 10 U.S. titles, 21 Continental Cup podiums (one gold, five silver, 15 bronze) and a 2012 World Cup third-place finish, isn't a lifestyle that's conducive for any pet, let alone one that demands daily litter cleanings or else. But lucky for her, her mom, who is a five-minute drive away from her Park City, Utah, apartment, takes care of the two cats Jerome considers her babies. If she's in town, she tries to visit them several times a week.

"When I'm on the road, my teammates will say how they miss their boyfriend or mom, and I'll say how I miss my cats," she said. "It kind of started out as a joke, but there's some truth to it. It has just spiraled into something much bigger."

Her five teammates, with whom Jerome travels, trains and competes for most of the year, even indulge her in her celebration of "Cat-Saturdays." ("Every Saturday, I wish all of my teammates a happy Cat-Saturday and I'll wear my cat shirt," she said.) The last two years, they've thrown her a cat-themed birthday party complete with drawn-on whiskers, a cat cake, bizarre cat-inspired gifts and Hello Kitty birthday hats. Her feline fascination has even rubbed off -- teammate Lindsey Van just adopted her own cat this fall.

Jerome didn't grow up with cats. She got her first at age 15 when her parents brought one home from their 2002 vacation to Kaneohe, Hawaii.

"My mom made the mistake of feeding and bathing these stray kittens out there. She fell in love with one all-white, blue-eyed kitten and convinced my dad to bring her home to deal with their mouse problem," she said. They bought a carrier and brought the kitten back to Jerome.

"I call her Nohe or Dr. Danger. She's a good hunter. She leaves pieces of her prey -- mice, moles, chipmunks and birds -- at my parents' front door," Jerome said. But her so-called gifts are not always welcome. "The worst present she has ever left me was the innards of some animal -- couldn't tell you what it was -- by the foot of my bed. She had cleaned it pretty well, so there was no blood. I had to grab some paper towels to clean it up."

Jerome's second cat, Dr. Doom, entered her life three years ago when her sister's friend needed to find a home for a skittish stray kitten she found outside of a restaurant.

"I told her that I knew a ton of people who wanted a cat. But I didn't know a single person," said Jerome, who took the brown-and-grey tabby to her parents' house and hid him in the basement for a week from her mom.

"When she found out, she was like, 'No way, no more cats,'" she said. Despite her protests, as well as Neohe's (she was less than thrilled to share her domain), Jerome found a way to let him stay. He has since become Neohe's apprentice, sitting and watching her tear animals apart on the porch. "Poor guy has no idea what's going on ever. He just likes to eat and play outside," she said.

While bringing home a third cat isn't on her radar at the moment -- she needs to focus on women's ski jumping's Olympic debut in Sochi -- she is certain plenty of kitties are in her future.

"I've thought about buying an island and making it a self-sustaining cat haven," said Jerome, only half-kidding.

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