Most cross-country skiers forget that the sport of ski jumping is considered part of Nordic skiing, and would probably run the other way at the thought of flying off the jumps that sit prominently in the 2002 Olympic venue. Nordic combined reminds us that the two sports are connected. But for Lindsey Van, the endurance side of Nordic is new. Recently retired from competition, she joins the thousands of people who enjoy the trails around Park City as a recreational athlete.
The Early Years
Born in Detroit, MI, but raised in Park City from a young age, Van was an alpine skier first. As a child, she participated in a wide array of sports, but it was the appearance of those jumps in Park City that sparked her interest most of all.
“I was in the Learn to Race program through the Park City Ski Team. I was more into going fast and looking for jumps,” Van says. “They had just built the ski jumps here in Park City to bid for the ‘98 Olympics. My dad tried it with his real estate company for team building. He thought it was something my twin brother and I would like.”
Eventually the whole family, including her mom, gave ski jumping a try.
“My mom, brother, and I all went out and tried it. In ski jumping you start really small, and work your way up slowly. My first jump was over a hay bale, and then onto the 20 and 40 meter,” she recalls.
Fighting for a Spot
As a junior, Van competed alongside the boys. Moving through the ranks of jumping, and solidly focused on an Olympic dream, she had a pretty large barrier in her way — FIS and the IOC didn’t recognize women, and there were no international competitions for them. With her cohort of female jumpers showing their interest and skill, more competitions began to include them. Still, her Olympic dream was one she was unsure of, even if she were to become the best in the world.
“As a group, we worked together over many years to have more and more competitions. We started with having FIS cups, then Continental Cups, World Championships, and World Cups,” Van says. “Eventually there were enough women at a high enough level that the IOC had to accept that our sport needed to be included.”
But it wasn’t without a fight. Van led the effort and the lawsuit. Finally, 90 years after the men began jumping, the women had a spot at the 2014 Olympic Games, and Lindsey Van realized her unlikely Olympic goal.
First she led the fight for women in her sport, then Van donated bone marrow — twice.
“I had a roommate that was diagnosed with leukemia. He needed a bone marrow transplant. Although I wasn’t a match for him, I wanted to join the Bone Marrow Registry so maybe I could help someone else. My roommate couldn’t find a match, so I felt helpless. I decided if I was ever a match I would donate,” she explains.
“I later was called by Be The Match (bethematch.com) and was told I was a perfect match for somebody. I took a medicine that makes your body produce lots of stem cells. At collection, they take out the stem cells from your blood and return the rest. An easy process to save a life. I donated to the same man twice, but in the end, he didn’t make it. I hope I gave him some more time with his family. My roommate ended up getting umbilical cord blood and is in remission.”
Those Pesky Knees
Aside from making the Olympic team — and helping to make that happen — Van spent plenty of time on podiums around the world, and was the U.S. Champion 16 times. A pioneer in her sport, she not only jumped into first place many times, but she also set the standard for all to come.
Unfortunately, that led to plenty of injuries — after all, when you’re “hucking your meat” off giant jumps, the impact takes its toll.
“My retirement from ski jumping was not a choice for me. After nine knee surgeries, my knee could no longer handle the sport. It’s been a hard way to end a long career.”
While she was still an active athlete traveling the world, Van began classes at the U of U. Although it was a challenge to complete schoolwork while training, traveling, and competing, she’s almost done with a degree in Kinesiology.
“It will be 14 years since I started when I graduate in December. I like to call it the accelerated 14-year plan,” she jokes.
Although school is one way to keep busy, another challenge of a retired elite athlete is how to spend all that extra energy.
“I have gotten into mountain biking. Being an athlete for 23 years I was used to training twice a day, six days a week, eleven months of the year,” she relates. “After the knee surgeries, I could no longer do the training I had always done. Biking was recommended as something easier on the body. My body craves and needs exercise, so I had to find something else. Mountain biking allows me to get exercise, see amazing views, and take lots of pictures.
Taking photos of the amazing views around Utah is a passion she shares on her active Instagram account.
The Other Nordic Sport
“I first started Nordic skiing when I was 10. I did Nordic combined for one year. I wasn’t very good, so I stuck with ski jumping,” Van admits. “After I retired, I needed to find new sports that I enjoyed and that didn’t hurt my knee.”
When she finally garages the bike for the season, Van is an avid skate skier on the trails of Park City. While she was at the absolute top of her sport as an athlete, she finds the challenge of the endurance side completely unique.
“It’s nice on the knees. It’s a challenge. It’s a great whole-body workout,” she explains. “I trained to be a power athlete, so endurance sports are really hard for me. It’s completely different muscles. My muscles have changed, but it’s still hard every time.”
Van takes full advantage of her life as a newly-minted recreational Nordic skier in her home town.
“Being a recreational Nordic skier in Park City is awesome. We are so lucky to have so many groomed, public, free trails in and around Park City. I love that I can go ski so many kilometers around the town.”
As for racing in the Wasatch Citizen’s Series, the once Olympic ski jumper says that endurance sports give her anxiety. She hasn’t ruled it out though. Until she decides to line up at the start line, she’ll be out enjoying the sport for the same reason so many do — to get some exercise in a beautiful place. And she has promised to give classic a try too!