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.