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Ella Wilson tightens the laces on her boots, slides into the start gate, positions her skis into the tracks, and waits for a signal from her coach to begin her descent. As the 14-year-old accelerates down the ski jump, she’ll reach 55 mph. What comes next is a moment most Coloradans will never experience. “Once you’re going down the hill, everything stops: It’s just you and your skis. Then, right as you go into the air, it’s the best feeling ever,” says Ella, who soars roughly four meters off the ground and hopes to hit a distance of approximately 70 to 100 meters. “It’s dead silent, and you feel like you’re floating.”
That rush is, in part, what keeps the Steamboat Springs teenager hooked on the notoriously difficult and niche sport of Nordic combined, a discipline that pairs ski jumping with cross-country ski racing. The first major Nordic combined competition took place in 1892 in Oslo, Norway, and the discipline has been an Olympic sport—but only for men—since the first Winter Games in 1924. Today, jumpers at national and international competitions are judged on distance and style, and those scores determine the seeding for the cross-country race that follows, where men typically skate ski for 10 kilometers while women ski five.
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Nordic combined has historically been dominated by Norwegians at elite, world-stage events, but American ski fans may remember the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, Canada, where the United States had its best results in the history of the sport. Bill Demong won the individual large hill gold, Johnny Spillane earned two silvers (one in the normal hill event and one in large hill), and both athletes, along with Brett Camerota and Todd Lodwick, took silver in the team event. Coloradans likely recall that, like Ella Wilson, Spillane and Lodwick grew up in Steamboat Springs.
While a fount of world-class athletes springing up from one small mountain town certainly could be a coincidence—3,800-resident Norwich, Vermont, has produced 11 Olympians—that’s not the case in Steamboat. Since 1932, 100 athletes with ties to the town of 13,000 located in the idyllic Yampa Valley have become winter Olympians. Of those, 22 competed in Nordic combined, more than in any other Olympic sport, and all of them trained at the same place: the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club (SSWSC), home to the world’s largest Nordic combined program.
But there is trouble in Nordic combined paradise. Despite yearslong advocacy efforts by the International Federation of Skiing (FIS), which oversees top-tier international competition outside of the Olympics, and USA Nordic, the national governing body in this country, in June 2022, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) declined to add women’s Nordic combined to the Games.
When the IOC announced its decision, the reaction in Steamboat could be summed up in one word: heartbreak. Now, the question is how to move forward in a highly specialized sport when women have been denied the chance to compete in the one competition that has long fueled their dreams.
Situated just across the Yampa River from downtown Steamboat Springs, city-owned Howelsen Hill’s 17 ski trails and modest 440 feet of vertical may not look like much to those who’ve traveled to ski the powder at Steamboat Ski Resort. Yet Steamboat residents look upon their hometown hill—Colorado’s oldest continuously operating ski area—with reverence for it and its founder, Carl Howelsen. A Norwegian skier who immigrated to the United States in 1905, Howelsen built a ski jump on the hill that now bears his name and, in 1914, founded the now-legendary SSWSC.
For 109 years, the community has continued to maintain and expand upon the pricey infrastructure required for ski jumping and Nordic combined by fundraising to help supplement Howelsen Hill’s operating budget. “It’s ingrained in our history,” says Todd Wilson, Ella’s father and SSWSC’s program director for ski jumping and Nordic combined. Today, Howelsen Hill has seven progressively higher and steeper ski jumps that are used for training and competition at what is the largest natural ski jump complex in North America.
But even with local support, world-class ski jumps, and miles of cross-country trails at their disposal, SSWSC athletes are not always in control of their destinies. Despite the success of the American men in Vancouver in 2010, U.S. Ski & Snowboard cut all of its funding for the national Nordic combined team in 2014, choosing to devote its budget to more popular sports such as Alpine skiing and freestyle snowboarding, which have more competitions, more athletes, and a bigger TV audience.
That zeroing out followed a previous cut to the ski jumping budget in 2010. “We had a real gut check as a sport,” Wilson says. In 2014, at the annual meeting of Nordic combined coaches from around the country, “we realized we were going to die if we didn’t keep kids coming in the programs,” he says. Up until then, the sport’s leaders had focused primarily on chasing results in international competitions, which, funders implied, would get more dollars allocated to the national team. But many inside the sport felt like the development pipeline was just as important. As such, along with other ski clubs across the country with Nordic combined programs, SSWSC recommitted itself to attracting more competitors. “We did everything we could to make our sport more fun and more engaging to kids and parents,” Wilson says. “Our numbers started to climb and have climbed every year since.”
The recruitment effort was so successful that Wilson and his team had to reduce their outreach among local kids so as to not exceed the program’s capacity. Then COVID-19 hit, and the coaches mentally prepared for what they assumed would be the demise of their hard work—and maybe the program entirely. Instead, the opposite happened. As indoor sports like hockey and swimming hit pause, participation in outdoor sports soared. The number of kids in SSWSC’s Nordic combined program rose from 130 to 170 between 2020 and 2021 before settling back down to its current 162 when some kids returned to their pre-pandemic sports.
Over the past several years, a full third of those participants have been female, Wilson says. There’s little wonder why. Since 2016, FIS has been charting a course to develop women’s Nordic combined, including holding the first women’s World Cup event in December 2020 and staging an inaugural world championships in 2021. This winter’s calendar has 13 women’s World Cup competitions. Those kinds of events give young, female Nordic combined athletes something to aspire to—and work toward. But the ladies in Steamboat Springs had the ultimate goal in sight as well: the Olympic Games.
Annika Malaciniski’s Instagram feed is an ode to a sport she came to relatively late, at the age of 16. There are the requisite shots of her training regimen and none too few images of her midflight in ski jump competitions. But it’s a photo of the Olympic rings with a long caption posted on May 29, 2022, that illuminates the struggle athletes—particularly female athletes—in niche sports face when it comes to recognition.
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Malacinski’s words read, in part, “By the end of June the future of Nordic Combined as an Olympic discipline will be decided…. The Olympic Games are a childhood dream for everyone doing any kind of professional sport, it’s a huge opportunity and it’s crucial for further development of our sport, specifically…. So please, IOC, make our dream come true—let women’s Nordic Combined be part of the Olympic program in 2026.”
All three women on the U.S. national team—Malacinski, 21, Tess Arnone, 19, and Alexa Brabec, 18—are from Steamboat. They, along with Ella Wilson and the other female athletes in SSWSC’s Nordic combined program, face real hardships by participating in this little-known sport, including the complexities of training in two totally different disciplines, limited competition for women, and a lack of funding and sponsorship opportunities. But the effort would’ve, in many ways, been worth it—and possibly led to expanded competition, better funding, and chances to be sponsored—if the IOC decided to admit the discipline into the 2026 Winter Olympics in Italy.
The women were hopeful, and they had reason to be. Following years of advocacy, women’s ski jumping was admitted into the Olympics in 2014. Plus, Nordic combined was still the only sport in either the summer or winter Olympics not yet open to women. The athletes were counting on the IOC to choose equity.
Malacinski was on a plane headed home from Europe in June when the decision was announced. She had paid for Wi-Fi during the flight so she could hear the news, anticipating a celebration. Instead, she went into the bathroom and cried. “My eyes were still swollen when the plane landed eight hours later,” she says.
The IOC’s decision was based on a lack of what it called “universality.” Women had competed in just one Nordic combined world championship, with only 10 countries represented, and Norway had swept the medals. That wasn’t all. The IOC also put men’s Nordic combined on notice. The mandate: Unless more countries could field men’s Nordic combined teams, the sport would risk Olympic elimination entirely. “That was a real kick in the stomach,” Wilson says. “I don’t think anybody saw that coming.”
After the announcement, Malacinski briefly contemplated switching to the ski jumping event only. She confesses she even thought about quitting altogether. She wasn’t alone. “It was brutal,” Wilson says. “The athletes took it pretty hard. We all did.” He points out that although the ruling doesn’t immediately affect younger girls like his daughter, the older competitors may not have another shot at an Olympics. To counteract the disappointment and keep athletes engaged, Wilson and the other coaches are recalibrating their goals to other high-level opportunities, such as World Cup events and the world championships. “We try to emphasize to the girls that the decision that was made is one competition every four years,” he says. “You can still compete to be the best in the world.”
Still, when the Winter Games are the only time the eyes of the world shine on your sport, it’s tough to give up that dream. “I think the Olympics is a longtime goal for most highly competitive and determined athletes,” says Arnone, who admits she was blissfully ignorant about Nordic combined’s low-profile status when she began training as a kid. “The Olympics definitely was one of my goals.”
At just 14, Ella Wilson’s five-ringed fantasies might not be gone forever if the IOC is willing to reconsider and allows women’s Nordic combined into the 2030 Games. For the time being, she’s sticking with her training and internalizing her dad’s approach. “Nothing can be compared to the Olympics, but it would bring me a lot of satisfaction to compete in the World Cup,” she says. “Not many people get to do that.”
Ella’s best friend, 14-year-old Eva Minotto, readily admits that the news about the Olympic Games initially affected her desire to keep training, which she’s been doing since she was only six years old. Over the past eight months, however, the teenager has recommitted herself. “I realized that if you really love a sport,” Minotto says, “you’ll stick with it.” Her goal is to make the national team and compete on the World Cup circuit—and hope for a chance at the 2030 Olympics.
The teens’ dedication isn’t just about future glory on an international stage, though. These competitors and their fellow jumper/skiers love the yin-and-yang nature of Nordic combined. “Cross-country skiing takes so much endurance and power and aerobic capacity,” Minotto explains. “Jumping is explosiveness, and there’s more of a mental aspect, as well. I love how the two work together to form this one great sport.” She enjoys it so much that, like other young athletes, she spends her summers training, too, using roller skis to simulate cross-country skiing and flat skis to soar off plastic-lined jumps.
For SSWSC’s more veteran athletes, it’s about the beauty and challenges of the discipline, plus advocating for a sport that’s reached an inflection point. A phrase Arnone spotted on a ski wax brand’s truck in Norway perfectly sums up her feelings about Nordic combined: two passions, one love.