The will to fly
Olympic aerials champion at Vancouver 2010, bronze medal winner at Sochi 2014 – after attempting an incredible and hitherto unseen quad-twisting triple somersault – and mother of two children, at PyeongChang 2018 Lydia Lassila also became the first Australian to compete at five Winter Games. However, she did not make it past the qualification rounds in Korea, which marked the end of her sporting career. She will remain a role model for future generations of Australian aerial skiers.
Destiny opens a door
"From a young age, I was certain of what I wanted. It was simple and clear. I wanted to win an Olympic gold medal," recalled Lydia. She is a born acrobat who quickly took to gymnastics, "consumed" by the idea of becoming an Olympian. But at age 16, an injury ended her gymnastics career. "That’s when destiny opened up before me, and a new challenge was presented – one that would change my life forever. Australia was embarking on a unique programme of transforming ex-gymnasts into aerial skiers and I was selected and offered a chance for a new beginning. I had a second chance to make my childhood dream of being an Olympic champion a reality. In less than two years, I was competing in my rookie year at the finals of the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics, where I finished eighth."
The Australian champion pursued another goal in her career: perform tricks that no other woman had attempted, innovate and push the boundaries. "I was determined to be no.1." She trained with extraordinary enthusiasm. The years leading up to the 2006 Turin Games were punctuated with injuries, and with victories, including a series of three consecutive first places in 2004-2005. But on the Sauze d’Oulx kicker on 22 February 2006 during the Turin Games, she sustained a serious injury to her knee when landing her second jump in qualifications. "[After that], I realised I didn’t need to work harder. I needed to work smarter."
A stunning performance to take Olympic gold in 2010
After several operations, she returned to the international circuit in the 2007-2008 season and to her standing of world no.1, winning the FIS World Cup in her discipline the following winter. "I entered the 2010 season with only one goal – to win the Olympics. My preparation was perfect and my mind bulletproof. I was ready." At Cypress Mountain, the venue for aerials at the 2010 Vancouver Games, Lydia started by taking ninth place in the qualifications on 20 February, making her one of the 12 finalists. Four days later in the final, she received one of the highest scores ever recorded, landing the two most difficult jumps and winning with a total of 214.74, far ahead of China's Li Nina (207.23) and Guo Xinxin (205.22). "I saw my name ranked at the top of the leaderboard. I sat there in shock, realising of course that I had won, but just absorbed the wave of satisfaction that spread through my body knowing I had finally achieved what I had wanted for so long … Olympic gold." She is the second Australian to win an Olympic gold medal in aerials, after Alissa Camplin in Salt Lake City in 2002.
The extraordinary and hitherto unseen aerial at Sochi
After her victory in Canada, Lydia gave birth to her first child. For the Sochi Games, she was determined to attempt a trick that had never been seen in women's aerials before. On 14 February, on the kicker in the Rosa Khutor Extreme Park, she placed first in the qualifications. On her last jump of the four-athlete “super-final”, she executed not a double or a triple twist, but a quadruple, otherwise known as a “back full-double-full-full”. Lydia took off from the ramp. She flew high in the air, performed a full-twisting somersault, then a double-twisting somersault, and then another single-twisting somersault, pulling off a mind-boggling manoeuvre in the air that seemed to last an eternity. But then she needed to land! Having gone so high and so big, the Australian landed on the back of her skis and fell backwards onto the snow. But Lydia smiled, blew kisses to the crowd, then hugged her Belarussian friend Alla Tsuper, 30 years old and a fellow mother, who was due to be crowned Olympic champion. Despite the unclean landing, the very high degree of technicality of her jump earned Lydia a bronze medal.
"Into the history books"
"That final jump has replayed over and over in my mind. It will for a long time. I risked all for the ultimate glory and although the medal was not gold, I was happy with my performance. I achieved what I set out to do when I first started the sport. I broke new ground and became the first woman to perform the quad twisting triple, a trick only men have mastered. It will be cemented into the history books as a gutsy, bold and progressive moment in aerial skiing history. I pushed my own boundaries, leaving me with no regrets. This I will always be proud of," she explained.
PyeongChang 2018, here I come!
The double Olympic medallist then took a two-year break and became a mother for the second time. In 2016, a magnificent documentary, The Will to Fly, was released, recounting her journey and her ambition to do what no woman had ever done before. The same year, in November, she explained: "I contemplated coming back in April and May. I was hoping that retirement feeling would come – but it kind of never did. I even thought, ‘Oh my God, when is this feeling going to come?', but it was also exciting that I had the drive to keep going." She added: "I’m realistic. The goals have changed. When you’ve won a gold, where do your goals go? Vancouver was about the gold. Sochi was about the quad triple. I can be competitive for another round. Opt for more consistency and be more strategic. I still have the fire in me." She returned to the World Cup circuit with a sixth place finish in Lake Placid on 14 January 2017. She then took two consecutive golds, in Deer Valley in February, and in Moscow in March. And all of a sudden, predictions for the aerials competition at PyeongChang 2018 were up in the air.
Farewell to competition
On the kicker at the 2018 Winter Games, Lydia Lassila's Olympic journey did not end in a fairy tale. On 15 February, she placed 15th in the second qualification round and thus bid farewell to her chance of a place in the final, and to her sporting career. "It’s the nature of the beast. There are elements that we can’t control. It’s tough, we know that. My story is over and that’s OK. I’m ready for it," she said philosophically after the event. "I have loved every minute. Whilst it’s horrible now and I’ll probably go home and cry for a few hours in disappointment, I’m grateful for my health, the opportunity, for what this sport taught me." And to set an example for future generations, she added: "It's been a wild ride, to bring the boys along and have them at training camps. It just proves you can do it as a mother. I run a business, I'm an athlete and a mum. You can do it all. It's just a matter of organising, but it's possible!"