Slovenian flyer Nejka Zupančič takes to the air over the 2024 Presidents Day weekend at Brattleboro’s Harris Hill Ski Jump.
Michael Moore
Slovenian flyer Nejka Zupančič takes to the air over the 2024 Presidents Day weekend at Brattleboro’s Harris Hill Ski Jump.

Ski jump offers giant leap for women

Female flyers were welcomed at Harris Hill nearly a century before they could compete globally, but more bumps remain on the slope to equality

Before the late Fred Harris unveiled his namesake ski jump in this town a century ago, the Vermont Sports Hall of Fame inductee shared a test run with his less publicized but more prized adviser.

His sister, Evelyn.

Ever since the latter Harris tried out what's now Vermont's sole Olympic-size hill in 1922, women have flown off the 90-meter slope - the only one of its height in New England and just one of six of its stature in the nation - long before they were allowed in the Winter Games just a decade ago.

This Presidents Day weekend, a Harris Hill crowd of 5,500 spectators cheered athletes from six U.S. states and three European countries at the landmark's annual tournament. But in the field of 33 jumpers, the three female competitors were outnumbered by their male counterparts 10 to 1.

"It's pretty sad, but it's pretty usual," said Kai McKinnon, the sole U.S. woman alongside two international peers.

The volunteers who maintain Harris Hill, facing a tall series of hurdles, nonetheless are aiming to change that.

Although ski jumping was one of the original sports at the first Winter Olympics in 1924, the global games prohibited female flyers from competing as late as 2010.

"To be very honest, at least at the moment, very few ladies are really good in jumping," Gian Franco Kasper, the former head of the International Ski Federation, said in 2005, adding the sport "seems not to be appropriate for ladies from a medical point of view."

Enter Tara Geraghty-Moats, a Harris Hill alum from West Fairlee whose campaign for women's inclusion attracted the attention of the Vermont Legislature.

"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 wrote in a 2009 resolution. "The General Assembly supports the effort of women ski jumpers for athletic equity."

Geraghty-Moats saw the Olympics finally welcome female flyers in 2014, then went on to win the first-ever women's World Cup event for the Nordic combined sports of jumping and cross-country skiing in 2020.

In comparison, women have competed at Harris Hill throughout its 102-year history - only to find that leaping off a launchpad 30 stories high at speeds of 60 mph to be the least of their challenges.

Take sisters Dorothy and Maxine Graves of nearby Greenfield, Massachusetts, who were disqualified from the Brattleboro jump in 1938 after judges learned they were not registered with the U.S. Eastern Amateur Ski Association. Undeterred, Dorothy competed again after the event's World War II hiatus.

"The crowd's favorite," the Brattleboro Reformer declared in 1946 when she finished fifth in a field of 22.

In the decades since, Harris Hill has hosted such visiting up-and-comers as Lindsey Van, who went on to become the first-ever World Ski Championships jumping gold medalist in 2009.

The venue also is nurturing its own talent through a new junior training program.

"Feels like I'm flying," participant Maple Billings, 6, of Brattleboro said of the sport.

As for obstacles, her older brother throwing snowballs is just the start. The younger Billings is the lone girl in her age group - a fact understood by 11-year-old local jumper Ava Joyal, who has to travel out of state to find peers in Paisley Rancourt, 13, of Lebanon, New Hampshire, and Leila Fey, 11, of Lake Placid, New York.

In turn, Joyal and her two friends have found inspiration in Van, whom they trained with last summer, as well as McKinnon, the sole American woman to compete in Brattleboro over the weekend.

"When I was a kid," said McKinnon, 15, of Lake Placid, "I always liked jumping off random things, so my parents thought they'd put me into something a little more productive."

McKinnon just returned from competing in the Nordic Junior World Ski Championships in Slovenia, only to see herself jumping at Harris Hill alongside Slovenian athletes Lara Logar and Nejka Zupančič. The latter two, having traveled 4,000 miles for the tournament, noted that female flyers face speed bumps worldwide.

While women can now jump at the Olympics, for example, they still cannot add cross-country skiing to win a Nordic-combined medal like their male counterparts.

"Guys have more competitions than we do," Zupančič said. "And the prize money, it's a huge difference."

Women receive up to 80% less than men at most events. Harris Hill, in contrast, uses the same tiered system to reward winners of both sexes - the result of a Brattleboro ski jump organizing committee of which two-thirds of the members are women, including Sandy Harris, the daughter of the venue's late founder.

Female flyers also receive help from several male supporters.

Todd Einig, who first jumped Harris Hill as a student in 1986, is now chief of competition and coach of the junior training program. Complementing the entire field on Sunday, Einig noted that the two Slovenian women "easily outjumped a large majority" of the men.

Then there's Spencer Knickerbocker, the 31-year-old who gladly relinquished his longtime status as the sole local jumper upon the weekend debut of Spencer Jones, the 13-year-old Putney great-grandson of the late U.S. Sen. George Aiken. Jones finished sixth in the men's U16 event, completing two jumps of 46.5 and 50 meters.

Knickerbocker appreciates Harris Hill's history of welcoming women. But as director of the nearby Marlboro Nordic Ski Club, he wants the sport to do more to promote equality.

"People have always said, 'There's just not that many women competing,' but how do you grow something if you don't hang that carrot out there?" Knickerbocker said. "For so long, women have heard 'you can't do this sport' or 'compete against the men.' Everyone should have an opportunity."

The next generation agrees.

Joyal has jumped a 50-meter practice slope, while her friends Fey and Rancourt have tried a 65-meter one.

The three are working their way up to the 90-meter Harris Hill, but know they need more time, more training, and more support for all women in sports.

"We need more people who are going to believe in and work for us," Rancourt said.

This News item by Kevin O'Connor originally appeared in VtDigger and was republished in The Commons with permission.

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