This is her promise: she will cut classes to watch it unfold on television or she will follow it on her laptop computer. Either way, Katie Willis will not miss what she fought so hard for; that moment when Olympic history and personal irony intertwine half a world away in Russia’s Caucasus Mountains.
There, near the coastal resort of Sochi, the first women’s ski jumping competition at the Winter Olympics will go ahead without Willis, and yet without her the event might never have gotten off the ground. Such is the story of the Calgary-born athlete who helped lead the charge for something she has given up but never stopped loving.
Even now, Willis routinely dreams of speeding down a pitched runway, nailing her takeoff then flying through the air with the greatest of ease. It is why she tracked the 2013 world nordic championships on her computer while sitting in a heat-and-mass-transfer class, part of her engineering studies at Montreal’s McGill University. And why she has vowed to do the same for the Sochi Olympics.
“I love school,” said Willis, 22, who retired in 2010 as Canada’s top female ski jumper. “But I’m also happy to have been a pioneer for getting women’s ski jumping into the Olympics. I know it will be an exciting event, and there has been enough time [to overcome the emotions of not being there] that I can watch and cheer on all the jumpers.”
Women’s ski jumping always seemed a natural fit for the Olympics given how so many other physical sports – judo, wrestling, boxing – have been added to the women’s program since 1992.
But the International Olympic Committee was cool to the idea of women leaping off a normal-hill jump and flying 100 or more metres saying the number of world-class competitors was limited and the sport too much of a novelty to earn its Olympic inclusion.
Willis, her mother Jan and other athletes argued that having ski jumping in the Olympics would attract more participants and thus grow the sport. The IOC stood fast even though women’s hockey had been added to the Olympics in 1998 as a way to promote the game.
As many as 15 athletes then sued the Vancouver Organizing Committee claiming that allowing men to ski jump and not women was a violation of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
A Supreme Court justice from B.C. determined there was discrimination against women but also no way to enforce the Charter of Rights on the IOC. American ski jumper Lindsey Van was so upset by the decision she dubbed the IOC “the Taliban of the Olympics.” A month before the 2010 opening ceremony, Willis announced her retirement to pursue an education. She was offered the chance to test the Whistler Olympic jump as a forerunner before the men’s event but said no thanks.
Four months later, she got a tattoo on her left shoulder. It pictures a ski jumper with the words, “She flies with her own wings.” By the time the IOC agreed to include women’s ski jumping for Sochi, Willis had already launched herself on “a new life path.”
“When I found out it was not in for Vancouver, it was quite difficult for me,” she admitted. “Having [ski jumped] since I was eight years old didn’t make it any easier. It was just so hard to focus on your sport with all the politics going on around you.”
Ron Read, Canada’s ski jumping representative on the International Ski Federation, tried to push for women’s jumping only to have it bounce off numerous obstacles. He felt FIS “was sending a lukewarm message to the IOC,” that it wasn’t sold on the concept and was okay with a no vote for 2010.
“In 2004, it was decided we’d start with a world junior championship, then a secondary level for the women, then we’d ask to be part of the Olympics,” Read explained. “In 2006, that’s when we approved a world championship for 2009 and a request for the Olympics. We also wanted to establish a women’s circuit. The women’s circuit developed very well and the 2009 worlds were successful. But by then it was too close to the Vancouver Olympics.
“There wasn’t enough time.”
Van, the outspoken American, won the first women’s world championship gold medal in 2009. Roughly two months after the Vancouver Olympics, the IOC got the message and agreed to add women’s ski jumping to the nordic program. That opened the door for aspiring female Olympians.
“The sport has changed dramatically from 2006, when Katie Willis was one of the top athletes, to 2009 when there was an actual world championship,” Read said. “The seriousness of the athletes got a lot higher when there were medals to win. Check out the standings: the Americans have been as low as 10th this season.”
Willis celebrated the IOC’s 2011 decision to endorse women’s ski jumping, not for herself but for others. By then she had been a year removed from training and had settled into life as a full-time student. And yet her influence, her passion for jumping, helped motivate younger athletes on an improving Canadian team.
Alexandra Pretorius, 18, finished first at a 2012 Grand Prix event. She defeated nine-time World Cup winner Sara Takanashi of Japan to record the first win by a Canadian ski jumper since Horst Bulau scored a victory in 1983. Pretorius injured her knee in training last year and is working her way back from corrective surgery.
Atsuko Tanaka, 21, recorded her first Grand Prix podium last September while teammate Taylor Henrich, 18, was the top-ranked Canadian, and ninth overall, after three World Cup events this season. Ski Jumping Canada waited until Sunday to confirm all three women were headed to Russia.
“When I first started I didn’t know much about the national team girls. I was 12 or 13,” Henrich said. “Then I got to go on a European trip [for jumping] and that’s when I got to develop a relationship with Katie. She was my mentor. I would watch how she prepared for jumping. She inspired me.”
When the Olympics begin and women are allowed to fly unfettered over Sochi, Willis will watch from afar and feel as though she’s a part of it. The thing about sports, she noted, is that you can apply them to other aspects of your life. You can be committed and strong and true to your beliefs. No longer an Olympic-bound ski jumper, she flies with wings of her own. Still.
“Throughout my whole career, and the hardships throughout my sport, it was a difficult, challenging journey. But I learned from it,” Willis insisted. “It’s great to see the evolution of the sport.”