LIBEREC, Czech Republic - Lindsey Van of the United States nailed a perfect second jump to become the first ever women's ski jumping world champion Friday, almost exactly a year after a serious knee injury nearly ended her career.
Van was fourth after the first round but soared 97.5 meters through heavy snow in the second — by far the longest of the competition — to finish with 243 points and edge first-round leader Ulrike Graessler of Germany.
"I feel like I'm a pioneer in the sport now," said the 24-year-old Van, who started jumping at 7 after a hill was built near her home in Park City, Utah. "I feel like I've been at the front of the sport for so many years. So at this point it feels like I've kind of helped push the sport along."
Women's ski jumping is making its debut at this year's Nordic skiing world championships and the sport is hoping to earn a spot on the Olympic program for Sochi 2014. It failed to win approval for inclusion at next year's Vancouver Games, despite persistent lobbying from Van and other jumpers.
Graessler led after jumping 93.5 meters on the normal hill in the first round and managed 93 in the second to finish with 239 points for silver. Anette Sagen of Norway was third with jumps of 93.5 and 94 meters for 238.5 points.
Van had jumped 89 meters in the first round, and her second effort immediately drew a large roar from the small, flag-waving American crowd in the stands — consisting mostly of friends and family.
The 24-year-old Van could not contain her excitement as she waited for her last rivals to come down, jumping up and down and sticking her tongue out for the cameras.
"There was a really crazy point when my head was going everywhere," Van said. "It was hard to think of anything. I was just watching them jump, and I was pretty sure they were going to both go farther than me. So when I saw the leaderboard with my name still at the top I was obviously really surprised and just really happy."
Van's achievement looked highly unlikely just a year ago, when she blew out her knee when landing after a training jump on Feb. 15, 2007.
"I just landed and my bones hit together, and the cartilage exploded," she said. "I didn't fall or anything. I guess it was just wear and tear over the years."
She had surgery in March, then spent every day in the gym for the next five months. She returned to jumping in October, only to reinjure her knee and end up on crutches again.
"I still don't feel 100 percent, she said. "I'm just getting close to (full recovery) now, and it's starting to feel like a real leg again."
There had been concerns this week that the debut at the worlds may have come to soon for the sport, as 14-year-old Czech jumper Lucie Mikova crashed in training and was taken to the hospital with minor injuries. The youngest athlete of the championships, 12-year-old Natalie Dejmkova of the Czech Republic, withdrew after she fell on her first training jump on Tuesday.
But there were no crashes during Friday's competition and six of the 31 starters managed at least one jump over 90 meters. Nine of the competitors were 15 or younger and there are still large gaps in ability, with several jumps of less than 60 meters.
Still, Friday's medalists said they had proven they deserve to be at Sochi.
"The sport needs to move forward," Sagen said. "We have to start somewhere, and we're starting here today with the world championship. And we did great! Despite the difficult conditions we did very well, all of us."
Van was a fore jumper at the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City. She currently owns the hill record — for men or women — at the Olympic venue in Vancouver with 105.5 meters in the normal hill. Women don't compete on the bigger hill.
"I hope it holds until the Olympics, and then they'll realize who holds it and realize who should actually be there as well," she said.
"I'm happy that it's the old ladies that are the first three," Graessler said.
But for Van, who is still not fully recovered from having knee surgery last March to repair damaged cartilage, that may mean that the Sochi games are too far away to aim for a medal.
"I can't even think that far ahead right now," she said.
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