And she’s off: Doug Moe gets the backstory on the Madison ski jumper’s last-minute Olympics berth
Despite winning the U.S. Olympic Team Trials for ski jumping in December, Anna Hoffmann almost didn't make the Olympics cut and says female athletes still struggle for equality.
The call came in to Anna Hoffmann’s cell phone at 11 a.m. on Monday morning in Park City, Utah.
It was Blake Hughes, the U.S. Women’s Ski Jumping Team Director.
“There’s been a spot that’s opened up,” Hughes told her. “You’re next in line.”
Hughes was talking about a spot representing the United States in women’s ski jumping at the 2022 Winter Olympics that begins on Feb. 4 in Beijing, China.
Hoffmann, a 2018 Madison Memorial High School graduate who first donned skis at age 2 at the Blackhawk Ski Club in Middleton, had won the U.S. Olympic Women’s Ski Jumping Trials in Lake Placid, New York, on Christmas Day.
But countries don’t automatically get Olympic berths in ski jumping — the athletes must earn points in World Cup and other competitions — and the U.S. women, including Hoffmann, fell short of the necessary point total. The pandemic had reduced the number of qualifying competitions. Despite her victory at Lake Placid, Hoffmann emerged from those U.S. trials as an Olympic alternate.
Now on Monday her coach, Hughes, was telling her she might be going to Beijing after all. There were still bureaucratic boxes to check, calls back and forth to China. Nothing was certain.
“I had a really anxious, stressful day,” Hoffmann said late Tuesday from Park City, where she is living and training (having taken this year off from her studies at the University of Utah).
She’d gone to the USA Nordic Sport office in Park City Monday afternoon. She was too nervous to do anything else. Her coach was there. Everyone was excited — but anxious, too.
Finally, at 5 p.m., the official email arrived.
Hughes turned from the computer. “Oh, my God,” he said. “You’re in!”
Ski team coaches Anders Johnson and Trevor Edlund were there as well, and the room erupted in cheers.
“We were all ecstatic,” Hoffmann says. “Crying and hugging.”
Hoffmann says she will travel to Los Angeles on Saturday, spend the day doing Olympics-related “processing” — getting a uniform and doing all manner of paperwork — and then board a chartered flight to Beijing on Sunday. She will be required to test negative for COVID-19 at various points.
“It doesn’t seem real yet,” Hoffmann says. “I don’t think it will feel real till I’m on that flight over.”
That plane ride will, in a sense, culminate a journey that started nearly two decades ago, when Hoffmann, the youngest of four siblings, first put on skis.
Her three older siblings had taken downhill ski lessons at Blackhawk and an introductory class for ski jumping. Hoffmann, tiny and watching from the sidelines, wanted in.
“I threw tantrums,” she says. “Finally my mom got sick of it and said, ‘Fine. If you want to do it so bad, let’s do it.’”
“I started waddling around on skis,” Hoffmann says.
Soon she was jumping, and eventually competing. When we spoke this week, I told Hoffmann I found a newspaper story from February 2012 — she would have been 11 — that reported her finishing third in her age group at a competition in Eau Claire behind two girls from Chicago.
“Mollie [Immens] and Claire [Larson],” Hoffmann replied. “They’re still two of my best friends.”
In the beginning, the camaraderie was part of the sport’s appeal. But there was much more.
“I liked the thrill of it,” Hoffmann says. “I liked going fast. That was always my problem with alpine [downhill] skiing. People would yell at me for going straight, as fast as I could.”
She continues: “And I really liked the fact that [ski jumping] was — excuse my language — just a badass thing to do. Showing up the boys. That was fun. I loved the rush of it, the feeling of jumping and flying as far as I could.”
She became a highly accomplished junior ski jumper, competing and winning prestigious competitions at the national level and competing in the Junior World Championships.
By her senior year at Madison Memorial, Hoffmann had a decision to make.
“Education has been a huge thing in my life,” she says, and she had been looking toward attending the University of Wisconsin–Madison and possibly pursuing a career in medicine.
Yet, at the same time, she was nearing the pinnacle of her sport.
“I knew I really loved ski jumping but I didn’t know how those two would fit,” she says. “I did them both because I loved them both. As a senior I asked myself whether I was going to quit and commit to school or try to be an athlete. I talked to tons of people. I concluded that I was young, I’d have time to do school, and if I was loving what I was doing, why stop.”
She moved to Park City and enrolled at the University of Utah.
One consideration — in the end it didn’t keep her from continuing to pursue the sport — was that women were constantly fighting second-class-citizen status in the ski jumping world.
Ski jumping didn’t become an Olympic sport for women until 2014. And according to a National Public Radio report, as recently as 2005, the head of the International Ski Federation argued women could harm themselves going off big jumps.
“Don’t forget it’s like jumping down … on the ground about a thousand times a year,” he said. “Which seems not to be appropriate for ladies, from a medical point of view.”
Speaking about this with me, Hoffmann scoffed. “They said our uteruses would fall out if we ski jumped. Here I am, fully intact.”
Fully intact — and an Olympian. When Hoffmann is on the flight to China this weekend and the reality of her accomplishment sinks in, it won’t be surprising if there’s a moment when she thinks back to the time her mom took her to Park City for a National Sports Foundation camp for promising young girl ski jumpers.
Hoffmann was 6, the youngest at the camp. She met legends like Lindsey Van and soon-to-be-legends like Sarah Hendrickson, who made history as the first woman to ski jump in the Olympics in Russia in 2014.
“They coached us and helped us,” Hoffmann recalls. “That was incredible to me.”
There’s a photo of Hoffmann, age 6, sitting and chatting with Van at the top of the 20-meter hill at the camp. As for Hendrickson, 15 years later, Hoffmann still talks to her several times a week.
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