Willis's Continental Cup win boosts women's ski jumping hopes

Willis's Continental Cup win boosts women's ski jumping hopes{mosimage}Oh, Katie Willis. What have ye done, lassie? Well, maybe ye've lifted a sport onto your 14-year-old shoulders and given it the boost it needs to reach the Olympics.

Willis, a ski jumper from Calgary, gave 2010 Olympic organizers in Vancouver something to think about on the evening of Aug. 9 in Klingenthal, Germany. Women's ski jumping, which is hoping to be a new sport in Vancouver's Winter Games, took a big leap forward (no pun intended) when Willis won a Continental Cup meet against the top jumpers in her sport.

'I didn't expect this at all. I just wanted to focus on giving it all I had and putting two really solid jumps together' she said after her victory on the normal hill (HS80 meters).

She led North Americans into six of the top eight spots in the competition, the second summer Continental Cup meets. Willis competed in her first Continental Cup events last summer, when the International Ski Federation OK'd upgrading what had been known as the Women's Grand Prix, and the first cup meets were held in Park City, Utah.

Willis led the first round of jumping and put things out of reach in the final round, when she jumped 80 meters, tying American Lindsey Van for the longest jump of the day. Norwegian Anette Sagen, who has led the women's rankings – with Van second each time – for the past two years, finished second, with Jessica Jerome completing the podium in third place. Van fell on her first jump but climbed to sixth with her final-round jump of 80 meters.

Other North Americans in the top eight: Canadian Atsuko Tanaka, fourth, and three Americans 6-7-8: Van and Brenna Ellis, tied for sixth, and Abby Hughes in eighth. (In the first competition, Aug. 7 in Bischofshofen, Austria, Norwegian Line Jahr won, with Sagen second, Jerome third, Van fourth, Hughes seventh and Willis ninth.)

While Willis' win against an overcast sky is an understandable warm fuzzy, especially for a youngster in only her second summer of major competition, the significant element comes in what it can do – if anything – in making Vancouver organizers rethink their approach to women's jumping. Women's jumping, the last women's winter sport that isn't in the Olympics (there is no women's nordic combined), is pressing to become an Olympic sport in 2010.

Being upgraded to Continental Cup level was major progress a year ago, but one other stumbling block is being included in two World Championships. The schedule for the 2007 worlds in Sapporo, Japan, is established, and while adding women's jumping wouldn't require any additional venue construction – the jumps already are there – adding one or two additional events would be costly. So there's been no sense of urgency about approaching Sapporo officials to add women's jumping. The prospects of women's jumping at the 2009 World Championships in Liberec, Czech Republic, are far more encouraging.

There's a slight bit of irony involved with the Vancouver situation. Although women's jumping has existed for decades, it's never been on a wide scale. In 1995, when the nordic World Championships were held in Thunder Bay, Ontario, women's jumping was an exhibition event. As a nonmedal competition, it drew little media interest, except for the Swedish jumper who reportedly was breast-feeding her infant between rounds. Photographers were diving for that photo.

In 1999, women's jumping was an exhibition again at worlds – on a rainy night in Ramsau, Austria. The rain ran down the in-run of the K90 hill in Ramsau, pooling at the takeoff table. American Karla Keck, who had been the lone U.S. women's jumper for many moons before 11-year-old Van revitalized things when Utah Olympic Park opened in early nineties, plowed through the pool and won the exhibition. Because the rain was so relentless, U.S. coach Larry Stone and Austrian coach Werner Schuster convinced organizers to call it a night after the first round before someone got hurt … and their sport would have been dealt a possibly irreparable setback.

Keck took gold, Van – now 20, but who helped breathe new life into women's jumping when Utah Olympic Park's jumps opened in December 1992 – and a flyweight who couldn't barrel through the water, hydroplaned to fourth, with Liz Szyotori 10th and Molly Stone 13th. Marie-Pierre Morin, who trained with Stone and the Yanks in Lake Placid, was the lone Canadian and finished 16th.

'Katie's win is such good news' Stone said. 'It's so important Vancouver officials realize they really hold the key … and now, Katie's shown they have some realistic medal potential. I hope they're paying attention."

As might be expected, Canadian jumping officials, along with Norway and Women's Ski Jumping USA – are leading the push to convince Vancouver. Brent Morice, president of Ski Jumping Canada, called it a 'fabulous day for ski jumping in Canada' and said it will help lift the program to the proverbial 'next level.'

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