Growing up on the side of a mountain in ski-crazy Park City, Utah, didn't hurt: Lindsey Van says she couldn't help falling in love with ski jumping. Now Van is a 21-year-old University of Utah student with a passion – and an undeniable talent – for jumping off mountains at highway speeds.
Her coach, Casey Colby, trains Van almost every day. Colby estimates that Van has made 13,000 jumps off of Olympic-sized hills. All that work has paid off: Van is ranked second in the world in women's ski jumping.
But Van won't be jumping this month in the Winter Olympics in Torino, Italy. Nor will the three other American women who are ranked among the world's top 10 women's ski jumpers. Ski jumping is the only Olympic sport that doesn't allow women to compete.
Van's teammate, Alissa Johnson, comes from a ski family — her father is a coach and her 16-year-old brother is one of America's best ski jumpers and qualified for Olympic competition. She's ranked ninth in the world. Johnson tells CBS News.com that while she never felt entitled to go to the Olympics, she always wanted it to be an option.
"It hurts me to think that someday I won't have a medal I deserved, an Olympic run I deserved, or be in a world championship, just because I'm a woman," Johnson said.
Four years later, there is still no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow for Van.
Nikki Stone, a seasoned freestyle aerials jumper, also embraced the Olympic dream as a child. But at 23, she realized it by competing in the 1994 Games in Lillehammer, Norway. Four years later, she took the gold in Nagano, Japan. Her sport, which involves flipping and rotating while airborne on skis, is arguably more dangerous than ski jumping.
"To see these women not be able to realize their dreams is heartbreaking," Stone said. "I just can believe in this day and age that they wouldn't allow women to compete. They work just as hard as the men and they train just as hard as the men."
At the Park City club where Van and Johnson train, women and men do train together on a daily basis. Until a year ago, they competed against each other.
"When I first got started, everything that I did up at the jumps was the same as the guys," said Jessica Jerome, an 18-year-old national ski jumping champion on the 90-meter hill. "We coached the same, we had the same equipment, we were treated the same. It never really occurred to me that it wasn't an Olympic sport."
Game Of Numbers, Dollars And Stereotypes
In recent years, the International Olympic Committee has added a handful of winter sports to its roster, including snowboarding, skeleton, women's bobsled and snowboardcross. But women's ski jumping hasn't made the cut.
That isn't to say the IOC doesn't want it. Women ski jumpers will have an easier time getting the committee's approval — the tallest hurdle for most other sports seeking inclusion — than they will surmounting the steep issues of money and tradition that stand in their way.
Call it a tangle of bureaucracy — or just politics — but it is women's ski jumping's own oversight group that has yet to agree to officially make it into a world-class sport.
The FIS would have to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to put on a world championship for women jumpers. FIS president Gian Franco Casper isn't sure the women warrant that kind of substantial investment. He suggests that their numbers might still be too small.
"Actually, they are all jumping, but not all are really jumping. Six or seven of them are really jumping," Casper said in a telephone interview. "There are a few really jumping, but a few, in very few nations."
More than 120 women from 14 countries are registered with the International Federation of Skiing as ski jumpers. Nearly half of them are qualified to compete internationally; ski jumping boasts more seasoned competitors than women's bobsled and skeleton had when those sports were added to the Games in 2002.
"If you have a new sport, it's automatic that women and men are put in," said coach Colby. "But if men already compete, it's such a long and frustrating process.
Although the FIS board has already decided in principle to build women's ski jumping into an Olympic-level sport, a May vote will determine whether they have a shot at inclusion by 2010 — when Van will be 25 years old.
The Gender Debate
Lingering fears about safety may also have an impact on the FIS' vote in May. Sailing smoothly off a 90-meter jump and landing well has about the same impact on the body as jumping straight down two meters (about 6½ feet), Casper said. Olympic-caliber jumpers do that about 1,000 times each year. For women, this could have serious affect on the uterus and abdomen — or so doctors thought, until recently.
"I'm not a doctor, but nowadays our doctors are less frightened about the health effects of jumping for women," Casper said.
Injuries are rare for the Park City jumpers. Van's only major injury in more than a decade of jumping was unrelated to training or jumping.
Despite trying to erase safety concerns, advocates of Olympic inclusion for these women fear that the ski federation isn't considering the physical differences between men and women.
"Women aren't built the same way that men are; that's the thing we're battling with," Johnson said, resentful that some of the FIS members judge jump lengths and body-fat content of women jumpers against the men's longstanding numbers. "We shouldn't be compared to men."
It is relatively common for women's Olympic competitions to have different, more physically restrictive rules than men's competitions.
While the IOC justifies gender-based regulations as necessary for the safety of female athletes, women have seen the rules as discriminatory obstacles — and have pushed to prove their physical ability to execute the thought-to-be impossible.
In a now-famous nose-thumbing of judges and Olympic rule makers, French figure skater Surya Bonaly back-flipped — illegally — during her long program at Nagano in 1998. Stone has fought for women's right to perform moves such as triple backflips in women's freestyle aerials.
U.S. women ski jumpers are fighting simply to jump — in the most visible amateur athletic competition on earth.
By Christine Lagorio