Brothers there for U.S. jumpers
Abby Hughes learned to ski not long after she learned to walk, and when she began carving through the snow in her hometown of Park City, Utah, she was fixated on two things: having a "Little Mermaid" logo on at least one item of clothing, and following her older brother, Blake, wherever he went.
"I wore his clothes, I stole his toys, I ate his Legos," Abby said of Blake, who is two and a half years her senior and now an assistant coach for the U.S. ski jumping national team program.
From the time Abby first put on ski boots, exhibiting perfect balance as she walked along the top edge of the living room couch -- their parents were ski instructors -- it was clear she was destined to be a terrific athlete. She was part of a state championship 4x400-meter relay on her high school track team, and Blake said she is "one of the most talented ski racers I've ever seen -- and I'm not just saying that because I'm her brother."
But, he added matter-of-factly, "She never would have started ski jumping without me."
When the Sochi Winter Games begin three months from this week, Abby, 24, hopes to be among the four U.S. women who will be part of the first Olympic women's ski jumping field. And like others on the national team preparing for the crucial World Cup circuit this season, she has a sibling who grew up with her in the sport and can offer a very particular kind of support.
World champion Sarah Hendrickson, currently rehabbing a surgically repaired knee after a training crash in August, also followed in the tracks of older brother Nick. She specialized in jumping from an early age while he crossed over into Nordic combined. The twinned discipline of endurance and explosiveness, cross-country skiing and ski jumping, is still competed by men only.
It's not impossible they could both make it to Sochi. Nineteen-year-old Sarah's comeback on snow is projected for January. She has no margin for error in her recovery, but those who have observed her attitude in the gym say they wouldn't bet against her. Nick, 22, is a member of the Nordic combined B team in a deep U.S. program and one of several younger athletes contending to fill a wide-open fifth-man slot left by veteran Johnny Spillane's retirement.
Alissa Johnson and younger brother Anders have high hopes that she'll be a fellow credentialed athlete rather than a spectator at the upcoming Winter Games -- a vision their mother, Chris, calls beyond a dream, and a reward for years of supporting each other with uncommon understanding.
Alissa, 26, and Anders, 24, said having a sibling who can speak the shorthand of the sport has been invaluable. Men and women have different aerodynamic challenges in ski jumping because of their different body shapes, but "I think the [angles] line up the same," Alissa said. "I'll be struggling with my flight position at 60 meters and ask him, and he can say something and it's totally applicable."
The point, as they both well understand, is to "go far and look pretty," Anders said. "It's really not a complicated sport. It's more like figuring out how to make it easy for yourself, and that's hard."
It was only natural that the daughter and son of longtime ski jumping coach Alan Johnson would gravitate toward the sport. As a toddler, Anders cried at the bottom of the kids' hill when he saw his sister go up without him, yet he was the one who got to the Olympics first, marching in the opening ceremony in 2006 at the precocious age of 16.
Four years later, Anders qualified for Vancouver while Alissa and the rest of the women in the world remained out in the competitive cold after a rancorous legal and bureaucratic battle for Olympic inclusion. Alissa gladly attended his events as a sister and said she had no problem putting her own ambitions aside. But both said it was difficult at times to keep their distance from the gender-related crossfire in the sport. The women's field was not as deep, yet drew at least an episodic media spotlight while the men in the U.S. struggled for funding and attention.
Financial pressures were one reason Blake Hughes elected to leave the sport in 2009 after nine seasons of international competition – that and the difficulties of keeping weight off a 6-foot-2 frame he said might have been better suited to being an outfielder. He worked bussing tables at a restaurant and later as a bellman and reception clerk at the hotel where his father Bob is general manager, but found it difficult to balance the demands of training and real-world employment.
Blake went back to school, earning an undergraduate degree in commercial recreation management at the University of Utah, and began coaching part-time at the club where he and Abby started. He now works with athletes of varying ages and levels in the elite ski jumping program based in Park City. He'll occasionally offer advice to Abby if asked, but is content to see her make her own way.
There were times as kids when Blake thought of his little sister as a pesky shadow who needed to find her own thing to do, but they're both glad she didn't. For one thing, Abby had -- and still has -- a phobia of heights that would have kept her from getting anywhere near the elite level of the sport if she hadn't been so determined to be a copycat.
She doesn't remember exactly how she worked up the nerve to clamber up to the top of her first in-run ramp, but she knows why. That is one of the reasons she wrote, "Love you brother" on her gloves and flashed them at the TV cameras after jumping at her first world championships in 2011.
"Blake," Abby said. "It was Blake."