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Tellin' it how it is: Q&A with jumper Jessica Jerome

Jessica Jerome is a fireball, an admitted “head case” even. She’ll tell you how it is. And in her sport, that’s the stuff that the best in the world are made of — it’s almost mandatory you see. You have to be a unique person to love flying through the air in nordic jumping, hands down one of the most extreme sports in the world. “We’re hardcore!” said Jerome, last weekend when SR caught up with her over a few turns at Alta Ski Area in Utah.
    This past season, Jerome — a Florida native now living in Park City — struggled back from a 2006 season-ending knee injury. The year before she was ranked 3rd in the world, and after trying to make a huge comeback, she finished a disappointing 7th, but ended strong with a podium and a U.S. championships title to her credit. Next to one of the best on the U.S. squad, Lindsey Van, the 21-year-old is the veteran on a team whose youngest athlete isn’t too far out of pre-teen age.
   
JESSICA JEROME is a fireball, an admitted “head case” even. She’ll tell you how it is. And in her sport, that’s the stuff that the best in the world are made of — it’s almost mandatory you see. You have to be a unique person to love flying through the air in nordic jumping, hands down one of the most extreme sports in the world. “We’re hardcore!” said Jerome last weekend when SR caught up with her over a few turns at Alta Ski Area in Utah.
    This past season, Jerome — a Florida native now living in Park City — struggled back from a 2006 season-ending knee injury. (Click here to watch a SR Short Film from October 2006 on Jerome .) The year before she was ranked third in the world, and after trying to make a huge comeback, she finished a disappointing seventh, but ended strong with a podium and a U.S. championships title to her credit. Next to one of the best on the U.S. squad, Lindsey Van, the 21-year-old is the veteran on a team whose youngest athlete isn’t too far out of pre-teen age.
    The tight-knit team is working hard to establish that they, too, belong in the 2010 Olympic Winter Games. As the top team in the world, ski jumping will be the only sport in the upcoming Games to not have a women’s field. “It’s ridiculous,” Jerome said. But the women aren’t giving up, and have a support crew — including parents and pro bono experts — working on persuading the International Olympic Committee to change its mind. In the meantime, Jerome is focusing on summer training and preparing for the first jumping World Championships, which will be held in the Czech Republic next season.
    In the following Q&A, Jerome is candid about her season, the team, what it’s like being a college student, the IOC and how she deals with weight issues. Here’s how she sees it …
    
Ski Racing: Give me the rundown on your season.
Jessica Jerome: I blew out my knee last year so I was out all season. This season was hard to get back into. The way it works for the women in jumping, we have comps in the summer and winter and they all count toward the world ranking at the end of the season. I was really struggling this past summer, the winter was a little bit better, and toward the end of the winter — the very last competition — I was on the podium for the first time in a year and a half, so that felt really good. Nationals went really well. My teammate Lindsey Van, who is also one of my biggest competitors, was out with a knee injury so I was a little bummed about that because I would have liked to compete against her. You’re not the best until you beat the best. Yeah, I was stoked about how nationals went. I was really happy about that.

SR: How do summer competitions come into play when preparing for the next season?
JJ: Summer training is the most important time to get into competition shape. We train all summer for the winter. Juliann [Fritz] was saying, ‘The summer is homework and then the winter is exam time.’ You can tell by the exams who does their homework and who does not. We train really hard all summer and fall to prepare for the winter, but since there are competitions in the summer, it can throw you off a little bit. This year we have competitions all of September and October in Europe, so we will go over there and compete in September and in between we’ll have a camp so we’ll be able to train just as well if we were over here.

SR: So heard you just got back from a surf trip in Costa Rica. How was that?
JJ: It wasn’t long enough. It was only a week. Skiers get so burnt out by the end of the season and so they go somewhere, and then when you’re on vacation you feel guilty because you’re not at home training. It was a good time though.

SR: What is the U.S. women’s ski jumping team doing to get the IOC to reconsider its decision of excluding it in the Olympics?
JJ: Right now the Americans are really trying to push it because the Europeans are trying to be hands off and not go there. The Canadians at first were kind of neutral about it because they didn’t want to get into the dirty stuff, but really the Canadians are the ones that need to be pushing it since the Olympics are in Vancouver. So the Americans and Canadians are working really closely and they are trying to keep the athletes out of it. As athletes, we are not allowed to say certain things about the IOC and VANOC because we are on the U.S. Ski Team and the ski team needs to maintain a good relationship with all of those organizations, which I understand. We purposely try and stay out of the political stuff and keep focused on being athletes and jumping as far as we can.

SR: What is your one plug as to why women’s ski jumping should be in the Olympics?
JJ: Because we’re hardcore! It just seems so ridiculous that we’re still fighting for something like this. Ski jumping was one of the original six sports in the Winter Olympics. It’s one of the most extreme sports in the world. … I think they don’t want women because it’s such a traditional old-man sport in Europe that they think women sort of dilute the image and make it less extreme. It’s ridiculous. We train our asses off. We work just as hard as any other athlete in their sport, and we love what we do.

SR: How are you feeling about the first women’s ski jumping World Championships coming up next season in the Czech Republic?
JJ: I’m definitely excited because it’s the biggest competition that women’s ski jumping has ever had. But it’s pretty mentally scary at the same time. This is the biggest thing that we have at this point since we’re not included in the Olympics and we only get one event at Worlds. Like men’s ski jumping, they have three events. They have a small hill, a big hill and a team event. In cross-country, they have a sprint, sprint relay, distance, etc. And in alpine they have slalom, GS, downhill, super G, and whatever else — we only have one event, the K-90 Individual. There will be a lot of pressure and lot of girls wanting th
ose medals.

SR: How do you prepare for something like that?
JJ: I’m sort of a head case when it comes to mentally preparing. I work with a sports psychologist and she teaches us breathing techniques, relaxation and mediation and all that stuff, but really, the best thing for me is to not think about it. You train like you compete and compete like you train because if you do it differently it’s like an unconscious thing and I get anxious and fall apart. I try not to think about it and keep the fun in it while training as hard as I can.

SR: Why do you do this sport?
JJ: It’s phenomenal. It’s like no other feeling you will get from doing anything else. You could have a bad jump and another bad jump and you could have a 100 bad jumps and it sucks and you want to quit and you hate you’re life, but then you have one good jump and it’s like it doesn’t even matter how many bad jumps you had because it’s the best feeling in the world. That feeling you get from that one jump where you have got it figured out is amazing. It’s absolutely addicting.  

SR: If you had a super power what would it be?
JJ: To be invisible. [Author’s note: She already knows how to fly.]

SR: You’re also going to school. Tell me about that.
JJ: I’m studying economics at Westminster College. I’ve been going fulltime for about five semesters. I’m just doing barely enough that it’s fulltime but I won’t graduate in four years. I go to school fulltime all summer and fall. … I see skiers all the time who quit when they are 30 years old and start as freshman in college. It’s hard now but I’ll be so happy when my skiing career is over and I’ll be done or almost done with school.

SR: So what do you want to do for a career when ski jumping is over?
JJ: I don’t know what I want to do as far as a career goes. I know what I’d like to do, like a dream job. I’d like to work in the ski industry. I never want to be in an office. I like taking pictures. I like traveling. I could design ski tops — that would be fun. I have done a lot of art. My mom pushes it; if you don’t use it you lose it. I like to do a lot of drawing.

SR: So you want to design ski tops?
JJ: The ski tops for women’s ski jumping are so ugly, SO ugly — that’s because they’re Euro, and they don’t know what’s up. So I talked to Zoya Lynch on the Canadian team about it and she talked to one of the companies, and they were open to ideas. So hopefully we can come up with something because the women’s graphics for ski tops are pretty hard to look at and take seriously. Zoya and I will put together some designs and see if they are up for it.

SR: Do you struggle with weight issues in this sport that requires weigh-in’s?
JJ: There is a saying in jumping, ‘Fat don’t fly.’ It’s a dirty subject in the world of jumping. There didn’t used to be rules in jumping about weight and a lot of people were super anorexic because of it, like need-to-be-hospitalized anorexic. A couple years ago they made a rule saying that if you are this tall and you are on this length of ski you need to weight this much. For every kilo under that you are, you need to have a shorter ski. So basically, it forced a lot of people to gain weight and not dip under that weight. I think it was a good thing, it promotes a more healthy sport and it’s more fair. The person who works the hardest and has the best technique will jump far, not the person who is the lightest. With the women, you see both extremes. You see girls who can never reach that weight. Their bodies just won’t let them get down that low. They struggle and then have these coaches who are pushing them to lose weight and you see girls that don’t eat or become total head cases about calorie counting to the point where it runs their lives. Then you see girls who are 13- and 14-years-old and just had a growth spurt and they are so tall and skinny that they can’t gain weight. It’s really hard, because no 13- or 14-year-old girl should ever have to deal with something like that. Sometimes, it just drives girls to quit because they can’t handle it. Basically I just try to stay healthy and not give in to either extreme. I feel like I have an easier time dealing with the weight issues when I don’t think about it as much. Just train hard and eat right.     

SR: How does the weigh-in work?
JJ: Your ski length depends on your height and then you have to weigh a certain amount and if you’re under that, you’re disqualified. You’re allowed to wear your boots and suit and nothing else. … You get off the jump, land and ski out and before you get your skis off, they say ‘FIS Control, come with us’ and you go with them to a little room. There are a hundred things that they could test you for, your ski length, suit measurements, binding placement, whatever. They tell you to get on the scale, and they look at their chart with all your information and they say, for example, ‘You need to at least weigh 54 and a half kilos.’ If you get on and you’re over that, OK you’re good, but if you’re under that, you’re disqualified.

SR: So what’s the junior pipeline looking like?
JJ: It’s unfortunate, growing up we had such a huge club and since then a lot of people have quit and you don’t see the numbers anymore that you used to. It’s a dying sport in the U.S.  But there are a ton of younger girls coming up from all over the country, Steamboat, Lake Placid, and the Midwest. I hope they all stick with it.

SR: Who is on your support crew?
JJ: My parents have always been so supportive. My dad has been so awesome. He is up to the wee hours every morning working on women’s ski jumping stuff. I think he started doing it for me, but he loves all of the girls on the team and I think that now if I were not in the picture he would still work just as hard. Him and another guy, Vic Method and Deedee Corradini, they work so hard and don’t get paid for anything that they do. They fly all over the world, push it and lobby for it. I mean they do everything. Those guys don’t get enough credit.

For more on Jerome, check out a short film on her by Rival Films.

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