Canada's Tanaka finishes 12th as women's ski jumping makes Olympic debut
Canada's Atsuko Tanaka competes in the women's individual normal ski jumping event during the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics in Krasnaya Polyana, Russia on Tuesday, February 11, 2014. (Nathan Denette / THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Published Tuesday, February 11, 2014 11:08PM EST
KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia -- Canada's Atsuko Tanaka sat down at the top of the normal hill before her final jump Tuesday night and took in the moment.
A raucous crowd at RusSki Gorki Jumping Center was cheering from below. Surrounding her were teammate Taylor Henrich and Americans Lindsay Van and Jessica Jerome -- two of the sport's pioneers -- who fought to have women's ski jumping included at the Winter Games.
The Olympic rings were everywhere you looked -- on the railings, by the grandstand and even on the slope of the hill.
Tanaka and her peers had finally arrived on the biggest stage in sports.
"I was just really having fun up there with all the girls, we were high-fiving each other, wishing each other good luck," she said. "It was a great atmosphere to be jumping in."
Tanaka finished 12th in the normal hill individual competition and Henrich, also from Calgary, was just behind her in 13th. Carina Vogt of Germany took the gold, Daniela Iraschko-Stolz of Austria won silver and Coline Mattell of France earned bronze.
Both Canadians in the 30-athlete field opened with impressive jumps to sit in the top 10 at the midway point. They fell back a few positions after their second jumps.
Tanaka and Henrich were hoping for more but both sported wide grins after the competition.
"It would have been cool if I got to have a medal around my neck but it didn't happen that way," Tanaka said. "I gave it everything I had so I'm just happy with everything that happened today."
It was a day that was a long time coming. Men's ski jumping has been on the Olympic program since 1924 but women's ski jumping was only added in 2011 for these Games.
In 2006, the IOC voted to not include the sport at the 2010 Games in Vancouver because it was not developed enough. A group of women jumpers -- Van was the unofficial spokesperson -- took the case to the Supreme Court of Canada, but failed to overturn the decision.
The jumpers got to enjoy the fruits of the long battle on a mild winter evening in front of a flag-waving, cowbell-ringing crowd that thoroughly enjoyed the groundbreaking occasion.
Tanaka said she was less nervous than usual, especially after covering 97.5 metres with her first jump. That took some of the pressure off and allowed her to really enjoy the experience.
"We were all having fun up there," she said. "The nerves for me were gone and it was just fun."
Jumpers receive points for distance and style. They aim to stay steady in flight with the skis extended in a V shape before trying to land smoothly with one ski ahead of the other and the knees bent.
Wind and gate compensation points are also part of the final score.
Tanaka's second jump was 95.0 metres. Henrich, meanwhile, said she was pleased with her jumps of 97.5 and 96.0 metres.
"A 100 would have been nice but you know what, I worked hard and I did my job," she said. "I came here and I did what I had to do. I'm pretty happy with it overall."
World Cup leader Sara Takanashi of Japan was a big favourite heading into the competition but she missed the podium with a fourth-place finish. World champion Sarah Hendrickson of the U.S., who underwent knee surgery last summer, finished 21st.
Before the evening final, Jerome's father Peter held a news conference with other American families who had led the fight to get women's jumping into the Games.
"No one handed this to them," he said. "Being good at this didn't get them to where they are tonight. They were jumping as much as they could because they loved the sport and there was no reward other than the personal satisfaction of competing with their peers, challenging themselves and doing well."
Vogt has made nine career World Cup podium appearances but has never won on the circuit. She wasn't sure if she had done enough to beat Iraschko-Stolz when she reached the bottom of the hill.
"The first seconds were just terrible for me until the result was on the (scoreboard)," she said. "I couldn't realize it in that moment and couldn't believe it until now. It's amazing."
Calgary's Alexandra Pretorius was also on the Canadian women's team but she had to withdraw after aggravating a knee injury. High performance director Curtis Lyon is hopeful the program and sport will continue to move forward.
"I think this is the first step for the sport," he said. "I think you're going to see maybe a mixed team event in four years and it's just going to keep growing. You saw the level of competition out here. Everybody thought it was going to be two or three girls on the podium who win all the time and that's not what happened at all.
"So this is the first step and I think that these girls see the level they're at now and they're going to hopefully continue in the sport. We're going to have a strong team four years from now."
Tanaka also hopes the Olympic debut will help lead to bigger things in the future.
"I feel like I'm growing the sport as well and hopefully people are watching at home and seeing all this happen and be like, 'Oh, I want to join that sport."'