Supporting Canadian Athletes

Katie Willis

At the young age of seventeen, Katie Willis has already become an accomplished athlete leader for both her sport and her community. She has represented Canada in both the Continental Cup circuit and the Junior World Championships, and is currently well known for her fight against the International Olympic Committee (IOC) for the right to compete at the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympic Games.

Born and raised in Calgary, AB, Katie was always an active child, continually looking for something to do. She did not enjoy sitting around and watching TV like many kids her age; instead Katie preferred to be climbing and running around her neighborhood. Katie first became interested in organized sport when she participated in a multi sport camp at the Canada Olympic Park (COP). She tried many sports at COP, such as luge and cycling, but it was ski jumping that grabbed her attention.

Katie was eight years old when she embarked on her ski jumping journey. She joined a ‘learn to jump’ camp shortly after her experience at COP, which then led her to join the ski jumping program. “Every time I went off a bigger jump I felt like I was flying and I loved it!” exclaims Katie. Every other sport she excelled at, and there were many, bored the young daredevil. Her mom, although a little nervous with Katie’s activity of choice and sometimes scared to watch her fly through the air, was happy to see her participating in a sport she enjoyed.

Katie committed herself to the sport and attended her first Continental Cup in Utah in 2004 at the age of twelve. This was an exciting experience for her as she had never competed against so many women before. After competing in Utah, Katie traveled to Europe with her family and represented Canada without the assistance of a coach. Katie, being ever resourceful and unafraid, adapted to her situation by fending for herself and started training with the American team. “My family was a huge help and very supportive as they drove me around with the US team. They were a great source of motivation”, says Katie.

When she was fourteen, she made history at the Continental Cup in Klingenthal, Germany as the youngest athlete and the first Canadian female to win Gold at this international ski jumping event. Katie had succeeded against some of the world’s best female ski jumpers, many who were almost a decade older than her. She then went on to win the Continental Cup again the following year and in 2007 placed second at the Junior World Championships. In both 2006 and 2007 she was ranked among the top ten in the world. “These were huge achievements for me. Just being able to jump with these girls is quite the accomplishment and it is getting more and more difficult to stay on top”, says Katie.

Katie’s leadership experience began when she attended her first AthletesCAN Forum in 2007 in the place of current athlete representative, Stephan Read. She commented on the experience and how helpful it was to meet athletes from different sports and learn how they deal with certain issues. “I know a lot of athletes who have trouble getting money and it was an opportunity to learn how they raise money and budget for all their expenses, especially since ski jumping in Canada is not as big as in Europe and our funding base reflects that”, explains Katie. The team is generally scheduled for training when the AthletesCAN Forum takes place each year, but Katie believes it is important to plan for those few days off to train on your own and to gain those leadership skills and rare experiences. She would definitely find it beneficial to attend another Forum in the future.

Currently, Katie is playing a large role in the development of her sport as she battles the IOC to include female ski jumping at the 2010 Olympics. Due to the stipulation that a sport must have held at least two World Championships to be considered for Olympic competition, in 2003 the Canadian Snowsports Association made a proposal to the Fédération Internationale de Ski that female ski jumpers be included in the World Ski Jumping Championships. This resulted in the creation of an FIS Continental Cup circuit, a Junior World Championships, and finally the first Senior Women’s Ski Jumping World Championship in 2009 in the Czech Republic.

In 2006, the IOC voted not to include women’s ski jumping in the 2010 Vancouver Games, a bitter disappointment to the athletes. They felt they had done everything they could, citing examples of sports that have been included in the Olympics without having held at least two World Championships, writing letters to their MPs, making the public aware of their problem by promoting a petition to get 10,000 signatures in support of the female ski jumpers, and more. But to no avail. This led to the decision to file a human rights complaint of sexual discrimination.

Fifteen plaintiffs launched a discrimination lawsuit against the Vancouver Organizing Committee (VANOC), including Katie and six others from Canada. The BC Supreme Court lawsuit alleges that VANOC is in breach of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms by refusing to allow women to join men on the ski jumps near Whistler in 2010. The case was heard over five days, beginning April 20, 2009. The judge has yet to rule and may take many more weeks to reach a decision.

The IOC has maintained that women’s ski jumping was not sufficiently developed and failed to meet the criteria of having held two World Championships. In a statement of defense, VANOC stated that the Charter “has no application to the IOC”, which is not a Canadian body. They also commented that they would readily support women’s ski jumping in 2010 if the IOC authorized women’s ski jumping to be part of the Games.

Women’s bobsleigh encountered a similar stumbling block before it was accepted as part of the Olympic menu for the 2002 Salt Lake City Games. Today, the only Olympic winter sports remaining without competition for women are ski jumping and nordic combined, which features ski jumping and cross-country skiing.

For Katie, her goal of competing at the Olympic Games is an expression of her competitive spirit, and a natural progression to the next level. “It’s the end of the rainbow. It’s what every athlete strives for”, she says. She believes that the female ski jumpers have waited long enough to be included in Winter Olympic competition. “I’ve been competing on the circuit since 2004”, she said, “I’ve been so excited to see the growth in the field of women ski jumpers and we really deserve to be in the Olympics. It’s in Canada and I want to represent my country.” If the judge was to rule in their favour, Katie’s goals for Vancouver 2010 include beating her top 20 World Championship result with a top 10 finish.

Katie has experienced a difficult and challenging road in establishing female ski jumping. As a role model, she says it can sometimes be difficult to balance training with athlete leadership, but gets through by maintaining focus and staying organized and when she trains, she puts everything else at the back of her mind.

Currently, Katie is in grade 12 at Calgary’s National Sport School which allows for more independent learning and accommodates the training and travel schedule of high performance athletes. Outside of school, she enjoys taking the time to participate in the Speaker’s Bureau and speaking to young children about sport and how it relates to the world. Most recently, Katie gave an inspirational speech about overcoming obstacles in life at the Alberta Youth Symposium. She is someone who really wants to demonstrate leadership by pioneering her sport and passing along what she has learned to others. Katie wants to make a difference, “I know if I don’t make these Olympics, then girls down the road will be able to”.

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