January 2018 - ATHLETE PROFILE
By Mim Frantz
Women’s ski jumping made its debut as an Olympic sport in 2014. In 2016, women’s Nordic combined was established on the FIS-level with world championships starting in 2021, and Olympic Winter Games in 2022.
Nina Lussi is the 2017 US National Champion in ski jumping and Nordic combined, but with the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea, on February 9-25, she has been largely focusing her training and energy on solo ski jumping.
Family: Mom, Martina; Dad, Art; Sister, Danielle (25); Brother, Miles (20)
Sport: Ski Jumping and Nordic Combined
Hometown: Lake Placid
Training Location: Ljubljana, Slovenia
Education: Junior at University of Utah
Fun Fact: Currently living in Ljubljana, Slovenia, where she enjoys cooking exotic dishes with her two roommates, Tine and Pino
At eight years old, Nina took her first jump on the K18 meter (starter hill) at the Olympic Jumping Complex in Lake Placid. Coming from a skiing family, she has been on skis almost longer than she has been able to walk. It wasn’t really her idea to start jumping. All three siblings were a part of the NYSEF ski-racing program, and had fun ripping down Whiteface on the weekend training programs. Her brother, Miles, at five years old, liked to ski fast, go off jumps, ski in the trees, and be a menace on the mountain. Ski jumping was supposed to be an outlet for his energy. But Nina couldn’t let her younger brother be better than her at something, so she insisted on tagging along. Ever since that first jump, she’s been hooked!
After one year of flying, her sister Danielle decided that she too needed to find out what all the fun was about, so all three of them were jumping. Nina will never forget the day that she jumped the K48 meter – the next size jump at the training facility, at nine years old. She remembers marching in the opening ceremonies of the Empire State Winter Games, not ready to be second best. She worked hard, watched videos – VHS, not YouTube – of the best European jumpers, came face to face with some of her idols when they came to Lake Placid for a Continental Cup competition, and was inspired by Lindsey Van, her coach. Lindsey became the first-ever women’s ski jumping World Champion in 2009, but more important to Nina, became a friend and mentor.
At the age of 10, Nina took her first jump off of the K90 – the taller Olympic-sized jump tower you see in Lake Placid. This was the moment that she knew she was a “real” ski jumper. As usual, it was just her and the boys. To say she wasn’t scared would be a lie, but these butterflies are a part of ski jumping she has embraced. The sport attracts thrill seekers. “Despite the crashes and time on the sidelines, it’s definitely worth it. The ability to fight gravity, even if it’s just for a few seconds, and truly fly… that’s what all of this is about.”
Nina says that every day on the hill is unique, and it still gets her heart rate up. She had her international debut at 14 in 2009 – at the Junior World Championships in Strebske Pleso, Slovakia. She is a three-time National Champion in small hill, large hill and Nordic combined. Her best world ranking was 25th at the PyeongChang World Cup in February 2017. She placed first overall at the Continental Cup in 2014. Her personal best flight to date is 135 meters – 433 feet! She has jumped all over the world and aims to be a role model for young, ambitious ski jumpers.
There are many highs and a few lows in ski jumping. In January 2016, she was on the plane back from Japan with no World Cup points and no good jumps. She had been staying positive and telling herself the next day would be better, but at this point she just couldn’t stand it anymore. She went to talk with her coach on the plane and started crying. As an American ski jumper, they basically support themselves financially, and when she couldn’t perform to the level she hoped for, it started weighing on her. The US coach at the time, Vasja Bajc, looked her in the eyes and said, “Nina you are a great athlete, but maybe ski jumping isn’t the right sport for you.” This, of course, made it worse because ski jumping is her chosen sport and path. She has invested a lot into it and regrets nothing.
Instead of this conversation pushing her towards retirement, it inspired her. She told him that she wants to continue working and do whatever it takes. He shrugged and said, “Ok, I’ll see what I can do.” From there, with his help she decided to join a Slovenian ski club and go back to the basics, to immerse in the sport in a whole new culture and environment. She has been with their coach, Simon Podrebersek, ever since.
The bright light on her radar for this season is the 2018 Olympic Winter Games, but there is much to do before she earns a spot under the American flag. There is a qualifying period that extends to mid-January, as well as Olympic Trials in Park City, Utah, in late December.
Looking towards the future, she wants to keep competing as long as her body will allow. She hopes to compete in the next World Championships in Austria in 2019, and has her eye on a World Cup podium. When she leaves the sport, she wants it to be better for everyone in the future. She wants to continue blazing a path for American ski jumpers and prove that, despite its US obscurity, it can be a viable sport.
Nina says, “She loves the air-time. No question about it – the bigger the hill, the longer the jumps, and wider my smile.” There is really something so special to be said for slowing down time and being suspended, supporting yourself in the air.” Going against physics is some pretty powerful stuff. If there is anything that she has learned through her years as a ski jumper, “If I say I can fly, I will do my very best to stay off the ground for as long as I possibly can.”
Balancing education and sport is a work in progress. Nina mentioned, “For every sacrifice I gain on one end, and I lose on the other.” She faced a big life decision at the age of 16. She had spent months away from school in the winter, traveling for jumping competition, and although she tried her hardest to keep up with work while on the road, she had a lot to catch up on in the spring. There was one day in 10th grade at Lake Placid High School, when she snapped and burst into tears during a chemistry quiz. She was fighting to retain her spot at the top of her high school class, but this was too much.
Her teacher’s reaction to the meltdown was one that shaped her life. He pulled my chin up, and said that she better embrace the life she’s chosen, ‘Ski jumping is your passion, and at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter which college you get in to, you will do great wherever you go, and they will be lucky to have you.’
Her next step, at 16, she took on the challenge of going to a specialized ski academy in Austria, where classes were taught solely in German. After three more years of high school she moved to Park City to further her ski jumping career. In 2014, she enrolled at the University of Utah, where she is now a junior. She has been able to take semesters on campus in the summer and online courses throughout the year.
The largest sacrifice that comes along with being a professional athlete is having a traditional social life. Her high school friend group was filed down quickly, but the friends she made and kept, have stuck with her. She never went to her prom, graduation ceremony, and didn’t join a sorority or clubs at college. She struggled with finding the right partner who could keep up with her lifestyle, and it wasn’t until this year that she was in a real relationship that lasted longer than a month and a half. Life on the road is thrilling, but it can also be lonely.
But, she has been lucky enough to travel extensively, to see the world through the lens of the World Cup ski jumping circuit. She has had the honor of representing our country in international competition, and is just coming off of her first-ever women’s World Cup competition on Dec. 9 in Norway.
This past October, Nina became the first women’s US Nordic Combined National Champion. Nina shares, “This was a huge day for me, as it pushed me outside of my comfort zone. I have been mainly focusing on ski jumping for some years now, and was excited about the growth of women’s Nordic combined internationally. My teammate, Tara Geraghty-Moats is definitely our leader on that front. When she was suddenly injured and sidelined this fall, I knew it was up to me to pick up the reigns.”
She has seen women’s ski jumping develop over the last 15 years, and now women’s Nordic combined is beginning the same grassroots process. As for Nina, she’s focused on solo ski jumping, but not ruling out a Nordic Combined career in the future.
Update: On Sunday, December 31st, Nina was live on television competing in the US Olympic Trials in Salt Lake City. Her first jump was a great one, putting her in medal contention and right on track to her goal of qualifying for the upcoming Winter Olympic Games. Her second jump was also a great flight but the Telemark landing resulted in an injury and fall, an ACL tear that will need surgical repair. She was taken away from the hill on a stretcher waving to the crowd.
She is deeply disappointed but comforts herself in knowing, despite the injury that her training has paid off, “I now know my best was good enough and that means a lot. I will be back.” She is trying to stay positive and work through this process of recovery and all of the feeling associated with this setback. Her two teammates and close friends, Sarah Hendrickson and Tara Geraghty-Moats are both freshly back from major injuries, a part of the ups and downs of ski jumping. Nina added, “I am certainly heartbroken and would have been so proud to represent the United States in Pyeongchang. For now I will use my focus and drive to recover, and once recovered will take that same energy to the sport of ski jumping.”
Mim Frantz (email@example.com) of Lake Placid is a freelance journalist, event coordinator and yoga instructor. When she’s not writing, planning or in a warrior pose, she can be found enjoying outdoor adventures with her husband and three sons.