Jessica Jerome at home with history
PARK CITY, Utah -- Nearly 20 years went into the roughly 20 seconds it took Jessica Jerome to write her name on a previously blank slate as the first U.S. woman to be named to an Olympic ski jumping team, a signature she punctuated Sunday with a neat sideways spray of snow at the end of the landing area.
Jerome's saga started in a kitchen a few miles away, where she cajoled her parents into letting her enroll in an after-school learn-to-jump program when she was 7. At 15, she soared off the ramp before the masses at the base of the hill at Utah Olympic Park, a forerunner testing the conditions for the men's competition. It was a temporary guest pass to a closed party.
At 26, sitting on the metal bar as she awaited her turn, leading the Olympic trials after the first of two jumps, Jerome could not afford to let her athletic life spool out cinematically before her eyes. She couldn't flash back to the snapshots of her little-girl face under a big helmet, all toothy smile and brown eyes like saucers full of coffee, reflecting her delight in flying.
She couldn't dwell on the years of bake sales and car washes and $25-per-head fundraisers put together by all the parents, or her father's role in starting a nonprofit organization to help support the local girls' passion when officialdom turned its back. She couldn't burden herself with the memory of the very public and personal defeat she and other jumpers absorbed four years ago when they took Olympic organizers to court.
Sunday, Jerome had to shut out everything but the feel of her boots in the skis, the skis in the tracks, the transition off the lip from tight tuck to open-winged object in space, the solid landing with one foot slightly ahead of the other. "Historically, I've been known not to compete well under pressure,'' she said after clinching her spot.
But the crowd, the television cameras, that buzz so reminiscent of the 2002 Games? "That was really hard not to notice,'' she said. "There was no way of avoiding it.''
Jerome's self-assessments are generally unvarnished, and although she is no stranger to national and international podiums, she is still hungry for a breakthrough result. "I think I'm old for the sport, but I think that I have not hit my peak,'' she said in August. "I think I've danced around it for a while, I've been on the bubble for a while. I've been hearing from coaches for a long time, it's close but ... I'm really sick of being close.''
This time, she rose to the occasion rather than carrying it on her back. The competition played out according to recent form, boiling down to Jerome and 29-year-old trailblazer Lindsey Van, the two most senior U.S. team members and the two with top-10 World Cup results in their pockets this season. Jerome topped Van by two points, 248.5 to 246.5, with jumps of 94.5 and 94 meters, respectively.
"Honestly, I don't know if I've wrapped my head around it yet," Jerome said. "It sounds cliché, but it is a dream come true, and I can't wait to go and represent my country. If anything, it's just a little more room to breathe for me, maybe I'll sleep a little better at night, but I'll approach training and the next World Cup competitions the exact same way as I would have if I didn't win today."
Jerome was one of four Park City products competing in the seven-woman field Sunday, and all of them were enchanted as kids by the local facilities and year-round winter-festival character. The crowd of 5,100 on a crisp and almost windless day was swelled by the townies who have known them forever. Freestyle skiers from the national team watched from their bumps and jumps on the hill next door. Jerome's mother, Barb, a fourth-grade teacher, was greeted by some of her students.
"This crowd has been with us through thick and thin, so it was really fun to come out and celebrate how long we've been fighting to get here,'' said Alissa Johnson, whose brother Anders, a two-time Olympian, competed in the men's trials won by New Hampshire native Nick Fairall. "I can't believe how many people showed up and how loud it was. We felt a lot of love.''
Former Salt Lake City mayor Deedee Corradini's eyes welled up as she spoke to reporters about the women's upcoming Olympic debut. Corradini, president of Women's Ski Jumping USA -- the foundation established by Peter Jerome, Jessica's father -- said she thought most of the fans behind the barriers Sunday came to see the women who broke them.
"Lindsey and Jessica have struggled the most in these 12 years,'' Corradini said. "Lindsey wound up being the spokesperson for all the athletes. The emotional toll it took to sign up as the first two of the 15 plaintiffs [in the lawsuit against Canadian Olympic organizers] was huge. They really deserve to be in this Games, and I sure hope they make it.''
Jerome's win is the only trials result that affects the U.S. team selection. The U.S. is guaranteed three slots in Sochi and may have a fourth entry depending on World Cup results in the next three weeks. Van is likely to capture one of those slots, and Alissa Johnson and Abby Hughes are still in the mix.
Also among the spectators -- not by choice -- was reigning world champion Sarah Hendrickson, who expects to resume training on snow sometime in the next couple of weeks after a demanding rehab regime forced by knee surgery in August. If she is physically ready, she will be a discretionary pick for the team to be named Jan. 22 whether or not she competes on the World Cup circuit before that.
In 2011, when the International Olympic Committee scheduled its announcement regarding women's ski jumping, Jerome realized she would be halfway around the world from Park City, on vacation in Thailand. She decided not to change her plans. "Maybe it's better that I'm out of town, away from all the drama,'' Jerome recalled thinking. Instead, she listened in from an Internet café and celebrated the news with her friends.
What she and the other jumpers have earned is the right to keep the drama where it belongs -- in competition.