Canadian 23rd in Historic Women’s Ski Jump

Taylor Henrich had been feeling a little under weather last month. But there’s no way the 16-year-old grade 11 student at Calgary’s Bishop Carroll high school was going to miss out on competing in the women’s ski jump Saturday in Lillehammer, Norway. After all, it isn’t every day that you get to take part in a long-awaited, historic event. Henrich, who started ski jumping about nine years ago, finished 23rd Saturday in the first ever women’s World Cup event.

After all the years of waiting and hoping; lobbying and petitioning and even testing the courts, the world’s best female ski jumpers were finally given a spot in the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia. And Saturday, after years of competing on a separate Continental Cup circuit, they finally got to compete alongside the men. Same event. Same day. Same hill. Same crowd. Same television cameras . . . well, in Europe at least.

“It was awesome,” Henrich said over skype, shortly after her two-jump total of 200.6 points Saturday. She finished 76.4 points back of American Sarah Hendrickson, who’ll go into the history books as the first women’s World Cup winner.

“Just competing with the men too, that was outstanding. We came here from Canada to do that,” she said when asked about being part of a historic day. “I was excited to be here. It’s positive that we are moving in the right direction now.”

Coline Mattel of France was second in the 31-woman field with 247.7 points. Germany’s Melanie Faisst was third with 245.5.

Henrich was the only Canadian in the event, having secured the spot with an 18th-place finish at the 2011 world championships. Calgary’s Atsuko Tanaka, a former Canadian team member who now jumps for Japan, was 26th with a 196.1 total. “It’s a big step for women’s ski jumping,” said Canadian women’s head coach Tadeusz Bafia, who made the trip to Lillehammer with Henrich.

“For the women it was a long time coming. They fought for many years to get into the Olympics and they finally did it. Now finally getting to World Cup on the same hill as the men, it’s a big deal for all of the women here. “Finally the sport is becoming more accepted on the men’s side. It’s a very good day.”

The next women’s World Cup will be Jan. 6 in Schonach-Schoenwald, Germany. The men and women won’t be together on the same hill until March, 3 in Oslo. The day might have gone a little better for Henrich had she not gotten sick last month. “I guess you could say it was the flu,” she said. “I don’t know. It just knocked me off my feet.”

Henrich managed a handful of jumps before heading to Europe for this event. “She did well because her preparation was heavily compromised before the competition,” said Bafia. “She was ill during training before this trip. She only had 15 jumps, which is nothing compared to some of the others who had hundreds. “She showed a lot of energy today but not everything worked to the maximum from a technical point. She left a lot to still show to the world.”

Canada, along with the U.S., has been a major player in convincing the International Ski Federation and the International Olympic Committee to accept women’s ski jumping. “It sure was a long time coming,” said Ski Jumping Canada chairman Brent Morrice. “We really made that happen. It was Canada that made that happen. We really pushed because we had the team. If we had been in the 2010 Olympics I’m convinced we would have had someone on the podium. It was really unfortunate but it doesn’t mean that we can’t do it again.”

Most of the Canadian women grew tired of waiting for the IOC to bless their event. Zoya Lynch and Katie Willis have retired. Tanaka decided to compete for Japan. Nata DeLeeuw is now attending the University of B.C. Morrice is trying to talk Tanaka and DeLeeuw into returning. And now his cash-strapped organization has some money to work with.

The 2014 Olympic status and Henrich’s world championship result has earned them about $200,000 from Own the Podium. Six months ago, Morrice hired retired three-time Olympic skeleton athlete Jeff Pain as high performance director. “We were very disappointed in the girls who did retire but I don’t blame them,” said Morrice. “It was a long, hard fought battle. Nata, Katie, Zoya and Atsuko were all at the top of the field but they’ve moved on. We’re hoping to get them back but we’re also showing a lot of promise with the younger girls who are on the team.”

Pain, a silver medallist at the 2006 Turin Olympics, is bringing a change in attitude to the Canadian team. “He’s doing a fantastic job,” said Morrice. “He has brought an attitude that we’re not just here to jump, we’re to win. It’s been a real good change. It’s top to bottom, we’re here to win.”

Pain started with skeleton when it was an unknown, under-funded sport. He was there when they started producing Olympic medals. “For me it’s an opportunity to help another emerging sport, kind of like what I went through in skeleton,” Pain said last week. “We went from self-funded, non-Olympic to fully funded Olympic. I’ve been through the process and I just wanted to bring that experience to a new group of athletes.

“At the end of the day it’s the person who jumps the farthest, not how you got there. The Europeans are way better funded than we are and they’ve been doing this longer than we have. When I was in skeleton, it was exactly the same but within a few years of us sliding internationally, Canada was the nation to beat.

“There’s no reason why the have-nots can’t overtake the haves. We did it then and that’s what we’re going to do now.”