How it feels to compete in the only Olympic sport not open to women

Annika Malacinski of the USA ski jumps during a women's nordic combined competition
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By Annika Malacinski, as told to Alex Azzi

There is a conversation I have about two or three times a month. I’ll be talking with someone at the gym or having a conversation with a stranger on a plane and I will mention that I compete in Nordic combined. And they will inevitably ask, ‘So are you training for the Olympics?’

And I have to explain that, because I’m a woman, I’m not able to compete at the Olympics.

Nordic combined is actually the only Olympic sport – summer or winter – that doesn’t have a women’s event.

People are always astonished to learn that women can’t compete at the Olympics. ‘That’s insane,’ they’ll say. ‘How can I help? Who can I write a letter to?’ They are genuinely amazed that, in 2022, we still don’t have gender equality.

The good news is that this might change soon.

On June 24, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) will decide whether to include women’s Nordic combined at the 2026 Milan-Cortina Winter Olympics. I have also heard rumors that the IOC might “fix” the gender inequality problem by dropping men’s Nordic combined from the Olympics. That would be even more awful. To “solve” equality, you’re going to take the men’s event away?

While men have competed in Nordic combined since the first Olympic Winter Games in 1924, I realize that lots of people still don’t know what our sport is. So here’s the gist: Nordic combined competitions start with ski jumping. You’re scored based on how far you jump, as well as your style in the air. Those results then determine where you start in the cross-country portion of the competition a couple hours later. The first person to cross the finish line is the winner.

I got started in Nordic combined pretty late. I grew up between the United States (where my dad is from) and Finland (where my mom is from). It was like I lived a double life. I would spend the first semester of each school year in the U.S., and the second semester in Finland. I had two schools, two sets of friends, two homes. I know it sounds hectic and crazy – and it was – but I wouldn’t change it for anything.

I played lots of sports as a kid, but gymnastics was initially my favorite. By the time I was 12, I was training 25 hours a week and striving to make it to the Olympics.

And then, I dislocated my shoulder. It was a pretty rough injury. I tried to continue at first, but I wasn’t able to do uneven bars anymore as a result of the dislocation.

This led to what I would describe as a “freak out” phase. I went from being a full-time athlete to – all of a sudden – having all of this free time on my hands. I didn’t know what to do with myself.

Thankfully, it was around this time that I found Nordic combined. My brother Niklas, who is two-and-a-half years younger, was entered in an annual Fourth of July competition in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. It’s a little weird to say that my little brother inspired me, but that’s what happened. He finished second, competing against guys much older than him, and I just felt so inspired.

Less than two weeks later, I was at the top of a 45-meter ski jump, with zero experience, flying down the in-run about to take off. It was terrifying, yes, but it was also the coolest, most adrenaline-filled feeling I’d ever had.

That was back in 2017. And I basically got to grow up with women’s Nordic combined as it developed.

In 2018, I competed in some of the first ever women’s Continental Cup events. In 2020, I competed in the second ever Junior World Championships. And by 2021, we had women’s Nordic combined on the World Cup circuit.

Annika Malacinski of the USA skis up a hill during a women's nordic combined competition
RAMSAU, AUSTRIA – Annika Malacinski (USA) competes in a women’s Nordic combined competition at a World Cup stop on December 17, 2021. (Photo by Sandra Volk/NordicFocus/Getty Images)

Along the way, I decided to put college on hold in order to focus on Nordic combined. How could I pass up this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to compete in a sport I love? And we were making so much progress in growing women’s Nordic combined that it didn’t feel like the Olympics were that far off.

But as I grew more serious, I also realized just how little we have compared to the men. From a huge gap in prize money to the number of competitions we have to the fact that we race 5 kilometers while men race 10 kilometers.

And then, of course, the fact that men have the Olympics and we don’t.

It’s nerve wracking to think that my future depends on what the IOC decides on June 24. If they don’t add women’s Nordic combined to the 2026 Winter Olympics, I don’t think I can wait to see if it gets added in 2030. I don’t want to send a message that, if you don’t get what you want, you should quit. But at the same time, competing at this level takes so much time and money. Literal blood, sweat, and tears.

Without the Olympics, what are we working towards? And what message are we sending to the world about equality?

I truly believe that if the IOC decides against putting women’s Nordic combined in the 2026 Winter Olympics that there isn’t a future for women in this sport.

 

Annika Malacinski is the top ranked U.S. woman in the sport of Nordic combined. She finished the 2021-22 World Cup season ranked 17th in the world.

Kaillie Humphries elevates another fresh U.S. face to podium status in two-woman bobsled World Cup

Kaillie Humphries of USA, Kaysha Love of USA in action at the 2 women's bobsleigh during Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games.
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PARK CITY, UTAH – Kaillie Humphries extended her podium streak on Saturday at the IBSF World Cup, where she and U.S. push athlete Jasmine Jones finished third in the two-woman bobsled.

The third-place finish in Park City marked the sixth podium for Humphries at the Park City track, which hosted the 2002 Olympics, and was Jones’ career-first World Cup podium in just her second World Cup start.

“This is our first race together, so really excited about that,” said the 37-year-old Humphries, considered the greatest female driver in history with three Olympic gold medals (2010, 2014 and 2022) and five world championships titles. She earned her 29th career World Cup win on Friday in Park City in the women’s monobob.

“Definitely a work in progress. … The runs weren’t perfect, but I’m really happy with our starts, happy with our drives minus a few little mistakes. It’s a good starting point, and we’ll look to grow from here.”

Humphries and Jones finished with a combined, two-run time of 1:37.69, 0.32 behind winners Kim Kalicki and brakewoman Leonie Fiebig of Germany at 1:37.37. Fellow Germans Laura Nolte and Lena Neunecker were second at 0.23 back.

Kalicki and Fiebig broke a 16-year-old track record with their first run, laying down a time of 48.60 seconds and besting the time set by Americans Shauna Rohbock and Valerie Fleming – the 2006 Olympic silver medalists – in December 2006 (48.73). It also marked the second straight victory for Kalicki, who’s won five career World Cup titles including last week’s two-woman bobsled race in Whistler, Canada.

“I was hoping Kaillie would get [the record],” said Rohbock, who is now a U.S. team coach and was on hand to see her record fall. “That first run there, she had that little skid in the bottom, so that didn’t help, but Kailee’s always putting up a great performance. And Jasmine, another great brakewoman, so we’re really lucky that we have that depth.”

For Team USA, it marked the second straight week that a fresh face earned her first podium finish while competing with Humphries. Last week in Whistler, push athlete Emily Renna and Humphries placed third in Renna’s first-ever World Cup appearance.

MORE IBSF WORLD CUP COVERAGE: Kelly Curtis notches career-best finish with top five at Park City skeleton World Cup

“Being able to race with her was really special,” said the 29-year-old Renna, who was a college track athlete at University of Rhode Island. “It’s really nice to be around seasoned veterans. It definitely makes you feel better in the back sled with you when you’ve got a good pilot who knows the track.”

Renna finished in eighth place in Park City with 12-year U.S. team veteran and pilot Nicole Vogt (1:39.04). Vogt partnered with Jones in her first World Cup last week where they finished seventh in Whistler, 1.33 seconds behind winners Kalicki and German teammate Anabel Galander.

“To have an opportunity to be with Kaillie in my World Cup debut – it’s exciting,” said the 26-year-old Jones, who was a collegiate track and field athlete at Eastern Michigan. “I just feel like I have so much more in the tank to give, and I’m just hungry for it.”

Jones is particularly gratified with her performance after returning full-time to bobsled less than 18 months ago following the birth of her daughter, Jade Quinn Jones, in February 2021. The Greensburg, Pa., native returned to training just five months postpartum, having sat out the 2020-21 season. She competed on the North American Cup last year, finishing the season with a win (the third NA Cup title of her career) and a third place in Lake Placid.

“I’m thankful,” said Jones. “Opportunity is the main thing, and I just feel blessed to have my first World Cup podium. I’m screaming on the inside. I may not show it, but I am jumping for joy because I’m just that excited and happy to have this accomplishment.”

She admits, however, it’s not always easy to compete balance a full-time competitive career with being a mom.

“Sometimes it’s a struggle being away from my daughter,” said Jones, whose mom takes care of Jade while she travels. “I try to get my facetimes in every night and just know that when I’m pushing, I’m doing it for her. Hopefully sometime in the future I’ll have her around on the sidelines cheering me on, and that’s my main motivation – that this is for her.”

The BMW IBSF World Cup continues its North American swing Dec. 16-18 in Lake Placid, N.Y.

Kaillie Humphries faces IVF journey head on — and collects monobob World Cup win along the way

Gold medallist Kaillie Humphries of Team United States celebrates during the Women's Monobob.
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PARK CITY, UTAH — Kaillie Humphries knew the quest to start a family would impact her 2022-23 season, but it’s certainly not slowing down Team USA’s reigning monobob Olympic gold medalist, who captured her first World Cup title in the discipline on Friday.

The 37-year-old Humphries, considered the greatest female driver in history with three Olympic golds (2010, 2014 and 2022) and five world championships, earned her 29th career World Cup win and her third victory on the Park City track, where she won the two-woman bobsled competitions in 2012 and 2016. Competing in Utah – as well as North American World Cup stops in Whistler last week and in Lake Placid, N.Y., on Dec. 17-18 – is one of the reasons that Humphries pushed pause on her journey to motherhood.

“I’m excited,” Humphries said following the win, marking her second straight podium in monobob following a third-place finish last week in Whistler. “I was excited for this year before it started. It’s part and parcel of why my husband and I delayed the IVF process and starting a family this season. To be able to be back in North America and have the first half of the season here – it’s been a long time since we’ve had that, so I wanted to be able to compete and it feels awesome.”

That’s not to say the leadup to this season has been without its share of hiccups. In fact, Humphries admits that following the Beijing Olympics, she had hoped to get pregnant immediately, but she and husband Travis Armbruster had to pivot when a diagnosis of stage 4 endometriosis made it clear that in vitro fertilization would be the best path for pregnancy.

“Right after the Olympics, I was like, ‘We’re going to get pregnant; it’s gonna be all good,’” she said. “I thought, my body has always performed, and it wasn’t going to be an issue. Fast forward to I find out we have to do IVF. We do the first egg retrieval, and it doesn’t go as well as I had hoped — which anybody that’s done this process knows, you can’t control any aspect of it. And so having to do a second round of egg retrieval, …it pushed everything back.”

What’s more, it brought Humphries’ training to a standstill at times, when she would have to limit all physical activity during the three-week period surrounding the egg-retrieval process.

“It impacted my training coming into this year a lot,” she says, “but I also think it definitely reset my hormones, which turns out I needed. I don’t think was a bad thing. I knew coming into this year, I wasn’t going to be in the same shape as I have been in the past, and I had to make peace with that. I know that each and every race I’m racing myself into shape, and each race is a preparation for January’s World Championships.”

Humphries also chose to share her IVF journey publicly, and she’s documented every step of the way, believing that her story makes it less scary not just for her but also for other women and female athletes who might be facing the same thing.

MORE IBSF WORLD CUP: Kelly Curtis notches career-best finish with top five at Park City skeleton World Cup

“My husband and I weren’t sure that we wanted to share it at first,” she admits. “But I felt it was important just to showcase this. I have nothing to hide. And as much as there are parts of me certain days when I think, ‘What’s wrong with me?’ At the end of the day, I know I’m not alone in this.

“It’s important, I do have a voice, and I want other people to know, as an Olympic gold medalist, if it can happen to me, it can happen to anybody. Infertility exists in the female body, and it’s important that I talk about it in my journey and hopefully that’s inspired other people.”

She says she’s received an outpouring of support, which has been particularly gratifying as she continues to put a painful breakup with Team Canada in the rearview mirror. Humphries, who was born in Calgary, competed for Canada for 16 years, winning three Olympic medals including a bronze in Pyeongchang in 2018. But the relationship came to an abrupt end later just five months after the 2018 Games, after Humphries alleged emotional and mental harassment by a former coach.

Winning a gold medal in Beijing just two months after her U.S. citizenship was finalized proved to be turning point for Humphries, who commemorated the milestone with two new tattoos. She first added the date of her win – Feb. 14, 2022 – to the back of her left hand and a larger rose and skull illustration to the back of her right knee and calf, all of which commemorate her triumph over that darker period.

“The skull represents a rebirth and a growth, overcoming challenges and/or obstacles and turning something negative into something positive,” explains Humphries, who says she chose the rose because it’s the national flower of the U.S. as well as a symbol of love won or lost. She notes that she has “an actual Olympic one” planned for August 2024, which is when her favorite tattoo artist is next available.

Humphries has also found the silver lining in her IVF journey, as the competition season has been a welcome break from some of the self-imposed pressure.

“By pushing pause for four or five months and competing, it allowed me mentally to know that we can go into all of next summer and all winter focusing on just doing the actual embryo transfers and having a good pregnancy,” she says. “I don’t feel stressed to try and get pregnant right away. I felt like I was becoming competitive with myself, wondering why isn’t this working? Why can’t I do this? I tried to control too many things, and I started to get really frustrated. Mentally, it was hard. So, by pushing pause, going back to what I know — which is the sport, which is what I love – it’s allowed me to control a little bit of my future.”

Humphries’ season continues Saturday as the IBSF World Cup from Park City concludes with the two-woman bobsleigh.