PARK CITY — Jessica Jerome may never be just an athlete, but for a few moments on a cold but sunny winter afternoon in her hometown, her athletic ability was all that mattered.
One of two U.S. women who led the fight to include women’s ski jumping in the Winter Olympics, the Park City native earned her place on the first U.S. team with a victory in the Olympic trial event Sunday afternoon at the Utah Olympic Park.
“Our coach actually came into the locker room this morning and sort of gave us this little motivational speech,” said Jerome, whose score of 248.5 points gave her the victory, ensuring she will be representing the United States in the Sochi Winter Games in February. “He said, ‘Girls, all of these people are out here for you. You may not realize this, but this is historic. So just embrace it. Enjoy it.’ I thought that was pretty cool.”
The 26-year-old and her teammates were stunned — and moved — by the support they received as more than 5,000 people packed the Utah Olympic Park. Officials said it was the largest crowd since the 2002 Winter Games were held here.
“This was the coolest thing I’ve ever seen up at the Olympic Park by far,” she said grinning. “It was awesome. I’ve never competed in front of a crowd like this in Park City.”
Nicholas Fairall, 24, won his spot on the men’s Olympic team with a winning score of 253.5. Park City’s Anders Johnson was second with 249 points.
Reigning world and national champion Sarah Hendrickson, 19, did not compete as she continues to recover from a knee injury. She did spend some of the afternoon in the announcer's booth talking about her teammates and the emotion associated with the event.
For Jerome, it was a moment she wasn’t always certain would be hers. She and teammate Lindsey Van, who finished second with a score of 246.5, were the first two plaintiffs in a lawsuit that asserted that women’s human rights were being violated because the IOC chose to exclude them from the games simply because they were women.
Van, 29, become the sport’s unofficial spokeswoman, while Jerome tried to juggle being an activist with being an athlete.
“It’s amazing,” she said of focusing simply on the sport. “I was always saying, when we were doing all of that court stuff and trying to be advocates for the sport, that all I wanted to do was train. In retrospect, it was a good thing that we were doing it, and I’m happy that we did that. But all I ever wanted to do was be an athlete.”
Despite knowing that she’d ensured her spot on the U.S. Olympic team, Jerome had trouble finding the words to describe how she felt about achieving a dream she’d fought so hard to realize.
“Honestly, I don’t know if I’ve wrapped my head around it yet,” she said. “It’s just, it sounds cliche, but it is a dream come true. I can’t wait to go and represent my country.”
She said it was the first time she’d seen both her parents “crying at the same time.”
The win, however, changes nothing in her day-to-day routine.
“It’s just a little more room to breathe for me,” she said grinning again. “Maybe I’ll sleep a little better at night. I will approach training and the next World Cup competitions the exact same way as if I hadn’t won today.”
U.S. women’s ski jump president Deedee Corradini was emotional about the moment.
“I’ve never been more excited,” she said. “It’s real. We’ve been waiting for this day for 12 years. ... It’s so exciting. We’re finally here; we’re finally part of this. We’ve been excluded for so long, it’s hard to believe we’re finally here.”
Despite the anguish of fighting for inclusion, she said watching the women compete Sunday made it all worth it. She was especially happy for Van and Jerome.
“Lindsey and Jessica have really struggled the most as athletes in these 12 years,” she said, “because Lindsey wound up being the spokesperson for the athletes through all of this. The emotional toll it took on them to sign up as the first two of the 15 plaintiffs in the legal case, was huge for them. They were scared to death that they’d be thrown off the team or punished in some way. And they were the ones who talked all of the other jumpers, the Europeans, into joining our fight.”
Van, who was struggling with some back pain, didn’t take her test jump.
“I decided not to waste too much energy,” she said. “I didn’t think I had three jumps in me today.”
She said she focused almost completely on her job as a ski jumper and not on the fact that this was the first U.S. Olympic trial for her sport.
“I tried not to think about the historic nature of today,” she said. “I just tried to focus on my jumps and not put too much pressure on myself.”
Like Jerome, she was relieved to be fighting for a spot on the team instead of engaging in political battles.
“It’s great to be an athlete,” she said, “and to finally have that focus on being an athlete and not being the spokesperson for the sport. ... We’re all excited to be here.” Officials were overwhelmed by the number of spectators, with many parking more than a mile and a half away and walking (and hiking) to the venue on the hillside near Kimball Junction.
“This crowd has sort of been with us through thick and thin, so it was fun to just come out and celebrate how long we’ve been fighting to get here,” said Alissa Johnson, who finished third with a score of 240. “We felt a lot of love. It shows there are people who really cared about us and really wanted us to be here.”