Vermont ski jumper seeks Olympic equity
By KEVIN O'CONNOR
Staff Writer | January 24,2010
PHOTO BY JASON R. HENSKE
Tara Geraghty-Moats, 16, of Fairlee, flies off Brattleboro's Harris Hill last February as a member of the U.S. women's ski jumping team.
Strange but true: Ski jumping is the only Winter Olympic sport closed to women.
Tara Geraghty-Moats wants to change that.
The 16-year-old Vermonter — one of 13 members of the U.S. women's ski jumping team — is part of a growing effort to bring gender equity to the games, set to resume next month in Vancouver.
Female jumpers worldwide, bolstered by more than 10,000 online supporters, petitioned the Vancouver Organizing Committee for inclusion in the Feb. 12-28 event. When that failed, they took the unprecedented step of filing a discrimination lawsuit in Canada's Supreme Court.
"It's not fair," says Geraghty-Moats. "I think all you can do is to try to make it fair."
Ask most Vermonters about women and the Winter Olympics, and they may think of state gold-medal snowboarders Kelly Clark and Hannah Teter, both of whom hope to win again. But Geraghty-Moats, a Fairlee resident, has attracted the attention of the Legislature.
"Whereas, as citizens of a state that has been home to women's ski jumping competition and home-grown ski jumpers, Vermonters can readily identify with the injustice that is being done," lawmakers have written in a resolution, "the General Assembly supports the effort of women ski jumpers for athletic equity at the 2010 Winter Olympics."
In a last-minute decision, jumpers lost their final bid with Canadian justices, who questioned the court's jurisdiction over an international entity. But Geraghty-Moats' story is far from over. As she tells it, there's good reason why she may land four years from now at the 2014 Winter Olympics.
'Do the impossible'
You could say the female pioneer was just following in her father's footsteps.
Born shortly after President Bill Clinton's inauguration in 1993, Geraghty-Moats grew up in West Fairlee in east-central Vermont and took to snow just after she could walk.
"The story I hear was my dad got some new ski boots and I decided I needed ski boots, too. I tromped around the house for a week or two and then I decided I needed skis."
The youngster favored cross-country over downhill — especially after her black Lab, Rose, began pulling her by a leash. One winter, shortly after she traded her third-grade classroom for home-schooling, she logged more than 500 trail miles. Then, skiing at Dartmouth College's Oak Hill recreational area in 2003, she saw the smallest of jumps.
"It looked exciting to try."
Tell that to the adults who watched nervously as the 9-year-old raced off the 5-meter jump and onto the hardpack below. Geraghty-Moats, for her part, focused on the moment in between.
"As humans, we're always trying to do the impossible. Being in the air ..."
It felt like heaven. Within three weeks she leapt from the nearby 10-, 20- and 30-meter jumps.
"I didn't think it was easy, but I thought it was fun. I decided I really wanted to compete."
A fourth-grade ski jumper may seem young, but many in the sport train as early as kindergarten.
"There's a lot of technique involved. When you jump, you want to lock your knees and pull up your toes so your ski tips come up and catch some air."
That lets you float longer in time and distance.
Bodies bundled in winter wear and hair tucked under hats, Geraghty-Moats and the eight boys beside her looked the same. But she felt the difference.
"There aren't that many girls who ski jump, and I got the sense there weren't such high expectations. People see a girl and automatically think they're not going to go as far."
"I was a ski jumper in my mind, so it was quickly in everyone else's mind."
Finding a coach at the Lebanon (N.H.) Outing Club, she practiced on its 25-meter plastic training ramp all summer long. By the winter of 2004, the 10-year-old bested more than two dozen boys and girls at a 15-meter competition at Brattleboro's Living Memorial Park.
At age 11 in 2005, she scored high enough on the 50-meter hill in Lebanon and 65-meter hill in Salisbury, Conn., to qualify for the U.S. Junior Olympics at the Steamboat Ski Resort in Colorado. There she competed on the 70-meter jump (the equivalent of starting at the top of a 25-story building, then sliding down a 37-degree slope 1-1/2 football fields long) and tried the even-taller 90-meter hill.
"I had confidence in my abilities, so it wasn't scary."
But the challenges had yet to start.
'It's like football'
Five years ago, still a preteen, she began training in Lake Placid, N.Y., site of the 1980 Winter Olympics. The only female Vermont jumper of her caliber, she was surrounded by other top peers — although she and four other girls were outnumbered by 15 boys.
Continuing to compete at the annual Junior Olympics, Geraghty-Moats won entrance to the U.S. women's ski jumping team in 2008.
"If you're on the team, you represent ski jumping in the United States. Sometimes they help out with money for trips. And you get a cool jacket."
But even that couldn't get her a chance to qualify for next month's games in British Columbia.
Ski jumping was one of the original sports at the first Winter Olympics in 1924. But the International Olympic Committee has never let women compete, arguing there aren't enough world-class female jumpers.
As IOC President Jacques Rogge recently told the press, "We did not want the medals to be watered down by too little a pool of very good jumpers."
Athletes counter that at least 160 women from 18 countries now jump at elite events, including the first women's ski jumping world championship last February. That's fewer than their 2,500 male counterparts but high above such Olympic events as luge, with 45 top women, and "skier-cross" racing, debuting in Vancouver, with 30.
"Ski jumping isn't a mainstream sport in America, but in Europe it's like football," says Geraghty-Moats. "You have 20,000 to 30,000 people showing up for competitions."
And so female jumpers worldwide petitioned the Vancouver Organizing Committee for inclusion. They drew support from the International Ski Federation and more than 10,000 computer users who logged onto www.thepetitionsite.com/2/let-women-ski-jump-in-2010.
When Olympic officials remained opposed, jumpers filed a complaint with the Canadian Human Rights Commission and then sued organizers, claiming discrimination in violation of Canada's Charter of Rights.
'A little too far'
Fifteen jumpers from five countries represented the women in court. Geraghty-Moats wasn't one of them. She was sidelined by a different complication: her first major injury.
She recalls jumping in a training competition in Lake Placid last Aug. 1.
"I went a little too far …"
Landing hard, she tore the anterior cruciate ligament in her left knee. Still recuperating, she'll miss the annual February competition at Brattleboro's 90-meter Harris Hill, Vermont's only Olympic-size ski jump. But with her physical therapists' blessings, she's about to train for the Junior Olympics in March.
As for Vancouver? For jumpers, that remains no-woman's-land.
The Vermont Legislature passed a resolution last year that noted the state's "long and proud" ski jumping history, from the creation of Harris Hill in 1922 to Geraghty-Moats' recent flight.
"The days of gender inequality in Olympic competition," lawmakers wrote, "should have long passed."
But just before Christmas, the Canadian Supreme Court refused to hear the case, reportedly after questioning whether Vancouver organizers had the authority to change a program set by the International Olympic Committee.
IOC rules state that any new sport added to the games must be open to both sexes, although existing sports without men or women first must stage two world championships before that gender can compete. Women's ski jumping, set to hold its second global competition next year, should meet those requirements by the 2014 games in the Black Sea resort city of Sochi, Russia, although Olympic officials aren't offering any guarantees.
Healing in the meantime, Geraghty-Moats will have to settle for what she sees on television. She's a fan of U.S. teammate Lindsey Van, the first women's ski jumping world champion, who holds the distance record, for both men and women, at Vancouver's 90-meter hill.
The Vermont teen also likes Croatian downhill racer Janica Kostelic.
"I take my role models from all across sports. Her parents weren't really rich — she just worked hard. It shows wherever you come from, if you put in the hard work, you can follow your dreams."
'Want to be ready'
Recently, however, news of 22-year-old Vermont snowboarder Kevin Pearce, who suffered a serious brain injury during Olympic training Dec. 31, has reminded people of the danger.
"Of course you're always aware of it," says Geraghty-Moats, "but when you're driving a car, there's also a risk of getting in a crash."
So why did Vanity Fair magazine sum up her sport: "Strap two planks to your feet, a brain bucket to your head, tuck down a long, long take-off ramp and fly high into the air …"?
"The media's opinion is that it's a crazy sport, but is it any more than downhill skiing?" she replies. "With jumping, you know there isn't going to be bumps in the trail."
And don't get her started about aerial skiing.
"You're running straight toward a stationary object and then flipping upside down? I could never, ever be in the air upside down."
She'd rather fly off a hill headfirst.
"The feeling of going off a ski jump is comparable to sticking your hand out a window when you're driving 55 miles per hour, but it's your whole body."
That, she says, sends her spirit soaring.
"I've wanted to fly since I was 2 — every evening I would demand to be picked up so I could reach the ceiling. Ski jumping is that version for me now. I want to stand on the podium in the world championships in 2011 or 2013. And I want to be ready when there are women in the Olympics."