As sports go, it’s one of the most spectacular.
Freed of earthly constraints, if only temporarily, ski jumpers soar with the eagles, traversing 100 to more than 200 metres through the air before touching down again.
It’s a sport that’s certainly not for the faint-hearted, yet Nata de Leeuw, RIGHT, though only 17, has been jumping for about six years, in the last couple of years almost exclusively on “normal” hills of 85 to 109 metres in length. Today she finds herself ranked 12th in the world – and that after a season she humbly described as “not that great.”
Great season or not, she’s the second-ranked Canadian female ski jumper according to the International Ski Federation (FIS) and a member of Canada’s four-skier national team.
At her last international event, the World Junior Championships in Zakopane, Poland, she finished 12th, her top finish in the 2008 season. “I didn’t do very well,” she said on the phone from her home in Calgary. “I had an off day.”
In 2007, an altogether better year for her, her best performance was second place at the Continental Cup in Lake Placid, N.Y. She also registered one third-place finish and three fourths that season.
In 2008, by contrast,17th place in the Continental Cup in Bairsbronn, Germany was her best finish beside the World Juniors.
De Leeuw’s farthest jump is 115 metres and she shrugs off a query as to whether she gets nervous soaring through the air for such a distance.
She’s used to it now, she replied. “You start off with small jumps, just a few metres and you extend it. Going to the bigger jumps was a little scary.”
De Leeuw took up ski jumping about six years ago, but she’s been on skis since about age two. For years, she was a downhill skier, but she always liked the small jumps she encountered.
One summer she enrolled in a multi-sport summer camp that included ski jumping. Summertime skiers usually jump on plastic surfaces that simulate snow.
“I thought it was a lot of fun, and you get to be in skis the year round,” she said of ski jumping.
Around the time she began ski jumping, her little brother, Yukon, 15 now, also took up the sport. Like big sis, Yukon excels as a ski jumper. He’s a member of the Alberta provincial team and his longest jump, again like big sis, is around 115 metres. This past winter, Yukon travelled abroad for international competitions and was the youngest skier participating, Nata (short for Natalie) recounted.
Top jumpers share some characteristics, Nata said. “You need a lot of quick, twitch muscles, strong leg muscles. You need to be quick and fearless.”
Everyone falls now and then, she continued.
Her worst accident? “A bad one last winter ” in which she broke her nose.
A grade 11 student at the National Sport School, Nata, like others in the program, is given the opportunity to miss class to attend competitions. It sounds like fun, but it’s not a particularly glamorous life on the road – just the four national skiers and their coach, tooling around Europe in a van, she said.
Training is a grind, though her love of the sport makes it all worthwhile. She’s at Canada Olympic Park – since the 1988 Winter Olympics, the country’s only ski jump– at 7 a.m. three days a week before school starts, and she follows that up with dry land training five days a week.
The Austrians, Germans, Norwegians and other Europeans dominate the sport, and Europe is where all the major competitions are held.
Although Vancouver is getting a ski jump facility as part of its Olympic facility upgrade, Nata and the other Canadian women won’t be competing there in 2010. Unfortunately for Nata, women’s ski jumping is not yet an Olympic sport.
It has to do with the sport “not being developed enough,” she said. “If the sport gets in, I’ll be there.”
As for her immediate future, she’s looking forward to the next international competition in July and to others next season.
“I want to keep having fun and see how far I can go,” she said.