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Fly girl
Karla Keck seeks Olympic chance for women ski jumpers


January 4, 2008

Kip Kopelke, a coach for both men and women ski jumpers throughout the Midwest, works with Karla Keck on a form exercise.

This year women have leapt into the history books by running for the highest offices in American politics.

When it comes to Olympic ski jumping, however, they remain grounded.

Working to shatter that snowy ceiling is Karla Keck of Oconomowoc, a former ski jumper who saw her own Olympic aspirations crushed by international sports officials.

Keck is a plaintiff in a Canadian lawsuit seeking to have a womenís event added to the Olympic ski jumping schedule for the 2010 Vancouver Games, just 15 months away.

"Itís just not right, whatís happening," says Keck. "Little girls ask why they canít be in the Olympics and I donít think any girl should have to ask that question."

Ski jumping is the only Winter Olympics event that excludes women. So, the suit was filed against the Vancouver organizing committee, saying the exclusion is a violation of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

The International Olympic Committee has rejected earlier pleas from women ski jumpers, but could take another vote on the matter when its executive board meets next month in Switzerland.

"Thatís whatís so sad," says Deedee Corradini, president of Womenís Ski Jumping USA, headquartered in Park City, Utah. "If the IOC could just see that they could shine if they let the women in. They could brag about how theyíve got the first totally equal Olympics in history."

Womenís Ski Jumping 2010, a Canadian-based organization, says women have met the IOCís criteria for "universality" because 16 nations have women ski jumpers registered with FIS, the sportís international governing body. In addition, 35 different athletes from nine countries scored top-10 finishes in Continental Cup events in the past two years, an indication that no one country would dominate Olympic competition.

FIS will hold its first sanctioned womenís world championship in February 2009 and will have staged four world junior championships for women before the Vancouver Games are held. An exhibition womenís event was contested at the 1995 worlds, several years after women began competing in the United States and Europe.

"The pioneering years are over. We are a sport," says Keck. Count Keck, now 33 years old, among the trailblazers.

Growing up near the Devilís Hollow hill in Oconomowoc, she began ski jumping at the age of 3-1/2 and first competed when she was five. Events were held on small hills all over the Midwest, and the Kecks traveled to them regularly. "My dad (Bob) had been on the U.S. Ski Team, and my older brother (John) started jumping," remembers Keck. "My mom (Carol) never wanted to stay home when Dad was jumping because sheíd get so nervous, so sheíd take us along."

It wasnít all that common for Keck to have other girls to compete against, so of course she jumped against the boys, moving to larger hills as she grew older and stronger. She was among the first females to compete on a K90 hill, just like in the Olympics.

As the years passed, Keck jumped in events throughout Europe, even being part of an experimental program in Austria that provided women with top-tier training to see whether they could compete successfully against men. In 1994, she tried out for the menís Olympic team; any disappointment in not making that squad was tempered by her expectation that soon there would be an event added for women.

"I thought, ĎYeah, thatís my goal, my dream,í" says Keck. "Those are Olympic values, American values that you can have a dream and that itís going to be a difficult road and that it takes a lot of time and dedication, and you have to put your whole life into it."

The 1998 Games came and went without womenís ski jumping, as did the 2002 Games in Salt Lake City and the 2006 Games in Turin, Italy.

Even as she served as Salt Lakeís mayor leading up to the Games, Corradini says she was unaware that women had no ski jumping competition in the Olympics. "I was incensed," says Corradini. Later, when she met Keck and other athletes in the sport, I thought, ĎThis is a cause worth fighting for,í" and she helped form the advocacy group.

Corradini and others involved in Womenís Ski Jumping USA volunteer their time to the cause. Keck does draw a salary as director of the VISA Womenís Ski Jumping Team. She works with athletes and secures funding for them. Among the top competitors in the Midwest is 19-year-old Elisabeth Anderson of Eau Claire.

VISA, also a worldwide Olympic sponsor, has a multiyear deal to back the woman ski jumpers. But Keckís talents arenít all on the ski jump. In 2005, she graduated from Waukesha County Technical College with a design degree and is owner of Keck Design Studio. "Interior design is my full-time job, and getting womenís ski jumping in the Olympics in 2010 is my second full-time job."

Keck comes from a long line of architects and artists, and used her free time while living and competing in Europe to explore its cities for ideas she could use in her own designs.

When it comes to lobbying for womenís ski jumping, Corradini says there could be no better spokesperson than Keck, who last competed in 2006. "Sheís someone who was denied an opportunity to go to the Olympics because they wouldnít allow it when she was in her prime," explains Corradini. "She became an example for us, along with our current jumpers, in making the case as to why they should be included."

Last January, Americaís top female jumper, 23-year-old Lindsey Van of Park City, Utah, set the overall K90 record at the hill that will be used for the Olympics. A month later, though, IOC President Jacques Rogge came to Vancouver and said the number of participants in womenís ski jumping was too low for the Games, adding that including women in Olympic ski jumping would mean the medals were "diluted and watered down."

Corradini contends that bobsled and skeleton, which were added for the 2002 Games, and ski-cross, which debuted in 2006, all have fewer female competitors worldwide than does ski jumping. "The facts are on our side," says Corradini.

In 2007, FIS voted to recommend the addition of womenís ski jumping to the Olympics, but the IOCís executive board hasnít agreed ó yet.

The lawsuit might force the IOCís hand, Corradini says. The suit notes that Canadian federal and provincial law prohibits the use of government funds for venues that exclude women. If a womenís event isnít added, the proponents are calling for an injunction to block the organizers from holding menís ski jumping events. Some say, however, that the Vancouver organizing committee falls outside the jurisdiction of such anti-discrimination laws.

"Itís our last resort," says Keck. "We have tried so very hard for so many years. But how many years do you expect these girls to keep their skill level up and put their lives on hold? Theyíre all going for this dream. They donít want to lose this motivation." m


This story ran in the October 2008 issue of: