KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia -- Women could finally go jump off a cliff. And it was spectacular.
That was the sweet verdict Tuesday night here at the Russki Gorki Center, where the first Olympic women's ski jump competition in history was being staged. The upset winner was Carina Vogt of Germany, who soared 91.3 meters -- or almost 300 feet -- on her best jump. But the result was almost a secondary development.
"We've all been fighting for this moment, for years," said Jessica Jerome, who was the top American jumper with a best leap of 90.4 meters, good enough for 10th place.
"We were all high-fiving each other up there at the top of the jump," Jerome said. "Women from all over the world."
You could understand their joy. They had waited such a long time to be up there at all.
Sarah Hendrickson, another American, was the first competitor to fly off the jump, more or less by the luck of the draw.
"When I was given the No. 1 bib, I didn't realize the significance right away," said Hendrickson. "Then I realized I was going to be the first woman to ever jump in Olympic competition. That's something I'll always be proud of."
And what was the experience like? What was she thinking as she skied down the ramp?
"I have no idea what I was thinking," said Hendrickson. "I almost don't remember my first jump."
It was that sort of atmosphere. The ski jump is an original Winter Olympics event, dating to 1924. If you ever attend the Games, you're a fool not to buy a ticket. It is the most dramatic event on the schedule. It's also something you rarely see.
Hockey games and figure skating shows come to every town. You can only see ski jumping competitions at selected spots. There are only four suitable world class jumps in all of North America, for example.
Thus, when an adventurous young Utah girl named Lindsey Van watched men flying off a ski jump on an Olympic telecast some 20 years ago, she wanted to do it herself. Except Van learned there was no women's ski jumping competition. People running the sport thought it was too dangerous for females. One fuddy-duddy even claimed a hard landing could detach a woman's uterus.
Van persevered against the ignorance. She pushed all the proper buttons in a dignified way. She visited with the sport's leaders. She got nowhere. In 2006, she and Jerome joined a lawsuit with 13 other women in an attempt to force Vancouver 2010 Olympics organizers to stage a women's ski jump competition.
They lost that battle. But they won the war a few years later, when the IOC finally agreed to bring the event aboard here at the Sochi Games. And so it was that Tuesday night, in the most fitting moment of the evening, the now 29-year-old Van stood at the top of the jump. She was not permitted an Olympic moment back in her prime, when she held world records and was ranked No. 1 in the world. But at least she got this chance, on a historic evening.
"I was in kind of a fog," Van said afterward. "I don't even remember walking up the hill to the jump."
Beneath her, a full house of nearly 8,000 spectators hooted and hollered and applauded wildly, as they did for every woman who glided down the ramp. All of them showed they belonged. There were no crashes. Van would eventually finished 15th in the field, with a long jump of 90.7 meters. Not too shabby for an old pioneer.
Meanwhile, the 19-year-old Hendrickson can be considered the sport's American Olympic future. The defending World Cup champion, she has been the USA's best American jumper over the past few years. But last August in a training jump crash landing, she damaged her right knee, tearing ligaments off the bone.
She pushed through her rehab with a motivation of just getting to the Olympics. But you could tell the knee was still bothering Hendrickson -- on the landings, she visibly put more weight on the left knee -- and she wound up in 21st place.
"My goal after the injury was just to make it to Sochi," said Hendrickson. "Of course, I wanted to win a medal. But it wasn't to be. It just told me I need to train hard and do it again in four years. I was just excited to be here. These 30 girls here tonight ... we're really close."
Van said several of the competitors did come up to thank her this week for helping to lead the fight uphill.
"Was it all worth it?" asked Van, repeating a question. "Yes. Yes, it was worth it. This was everything I thought it would be. I got to see someone win an Olympic gold medal."
There is usually one scene at every Olympics that jumps out of the frame and is remembered as something more than a mere athletic achievement. This Olympics already has found the scene that jumps out. In more than one way.
"Our sport will never be the same," Van said in the interview area at the bottom of the jump, and you could see the emotion welling in her eyes. "It's changed forever."
INSIDE: Canada's Dara Howell wins slopestyle gold; results, standings. PAGE 4 » Notebook. PAGE 5 » ONLINE: Live results, stories and photos at www.mercurynews.com/olympics.
Men's hockey » Team USA vs. Slovakia » NBCSN, 4:30 a.m. Thursday (live)
The U.S., with Sharks forward Joe Pavelski (shown), opens its quest for gold after settling for silver in two of the last three Games. The tournament opens with the Czech Republic and Sweden, the 2006 Olympic champ (9 a.m. Wednesday, USA Network).
Women's snowboard halfpipe » NBC, 8-11:30 p.m. Wednesday (tape delayed)
The United States has a solid chance at gold with Kelly Clark (shown), the 2002 Olympic champion, Elena Hight and Arielle Gold. Also in prime time will be pairs figure skating, women's downhill, and the men's speedskating.