05 March 2016


A devastating injury was not enough to stop Lydia Lassila from going where no woman had gone before, writes Jake Wilson.

Sydney Morning Herald 5th March, 2016.

Freestyle aerial skiing is, without question, one of the most spectacular sports ever invented: something like diving, something like gymnastics, something like throwing yourself off a cliff. No Australian has achieved more in this field than Lydia Lassila – a world record holder, a gold medal winner at the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics, and the only woman to pull off a quad-twisting triple somersault, a feat previously reserved for men.

All this is recounted in The Will to Fly, a new documentary directed by the team of Katie Bender, a former aerial skier who trained with Lassila, and Leo Baker, an animator who worked on the Oscar-winning short film The Lost Thing.

Several years in the making, the film serves as a primer on aerial skiing and the achievements of Australian women in particular, while chronicling Lassila’s quest to get back in gear for the 2014 Sochi Olympics after becoming a mother.

In person, Lassila is a disarming mix of friendliness and intensity, with an easy laugh, wide brown eyes, and a frankness about her weaknesses that registers as a form of strength.

For instance, she admits she has never been comfortable with viewing footage of herself, or with any kind of self-exposure: a fortnight before the premiere of The Will to Fly on

International Woman’s Day, she has yet to watch the final version. On the other hand, she says as an athlete she is used to having cameras pointed at her during training, so the presence of a documentary crew didn’t make much difference to her routine.

The only real novelty was the request that she wear a body mike under her ski suit during the jumps. ‘‘I noticed it at first, but then after a few weeks and months it’s part of the uniform,’’ she says.
One of her reasons for participating in the film was to raise the profile of aerial skiing, which she describes as a ‘‘boutique sport’’ that gets little attention between one Olympics and the next. ‘‘We’re out of sight, out of mind more often than not.’’

While she believes she still has more to give as an athlete, whether she returns to compete in the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics will depend on whether the Australian government chooses to build a new water-ramp training facility, enabling her to prepare without disrupting her family’s routines. ‘‘I think we’ve earned the right to be able to train in Australia, on home soil.’’

From childhood on, Lassila has had her sights set on the Olympics: she started out as a gymnast, switching to aerial skiing after an injury in her teens.

In The Will to Fly, friends and relatives speculate that her competitive nature was shaped by growing up with three older brothers, who would jokingly describe her as a pig adopted into the family rather than a human being.

Lassila doesn’t entirely know the source of her lifelong drive to excel.

‘‘I remember having that intensity and looking at other kids, going, ‘Why aren’t they concentrating? Why don’t they realise the opportunity that they have by being here?’ Particularly in gymnastics. ‘What a waste of time! They’re cheating their exercises!’.’’

Even as a child, Lassila was the kind of athlete who ‘‘visualised’’ her success, picturing tears running down her face as she stood on the Olympic dais receiving a gold medal. While she may not be wholly at ease as a movie star, she has long been a movie fan, travelling with a library of favourites loaded onto her hard drive which she uses for motivation. What works best depends on her mood: the Rocky movies, for instance, give her a boost when her confidence is down.

Another favourite is Senna, the 2010 documentary on the Brazilian formula one champion Ayrton Senna, whose turbulent career ended in a fatal crash in 1994. ‘‘I think I watch that when I need to feel like things could be worse,’’ she says.

Aerial skiing is a high-risk sport, and Lassila’s success has come at the price of frequent injuries. Especially devastating was the crash that shattered her knee at the 2006 Torino Olympics, where she had been the favourite for the gold: footage of this and her other agonising crashes is hard to watch without wincing.

Lassila says she is able to detach herself from unpleasant or frustrating memories when analysing video with her coach, but only to a point. ‘‘If there’s a trick in there that I’ve completely messed up, we fast-forward through it. Because we don’t even bother, we don’t even want to entertain that thought.’’

In the first half of her career, she says, she could be reckless in her determination to win at all costs: ‘‘I did some really stupid things.’’ Since becoming a parent, she has taken a more prudent, calculating approach, balancing the roles of athlete and mother. She has also started a business selling her own range of ice and heat packs, and works as an inspirational speaker.

There are ongoing challenges, but she has managed to keep things together with support from her husband Lauri, himself a former pro skier, and their extended family.

A toddler at the time of shooting, Lassila’s elder son Kai is a scene-stealing presence in the film, miming a ski jump at the breakfast table, or building a snowman as his mother chats to him on Skype. When he is old enough to see the film for himself, Lassila hopes it will reinforce the lesson she and Lauri have put into practice in their lives, that achievement need not be limited by gender.

When it came to her biggest feat, Lassila was convinced she could pull off a quad-twisting triple somersault after seeing it done by so many men. ‘‘Fat guys, tall guys, skinny guys – there was no discrimination on the body set so I was like, ‘Well, it’s not based on brute strength, it’s all relative to your physical size. Why can’t women do the same?’’’

As it turned out, the main barrier was mental. ‘‘I only figured out when I actually did it that it wasn’t even that hard,’’ she says. ‘‘It was just breaking that ground that was the hardest.’’

In The Will to Fly, almost more mesmerising than the jumps themselves are the images of Lassila just beforehand – her usually animated face frozen in a frown of pure concentration, while the body mike lets us hear her breathing and the affirmations she whispers to herself. What do these moments feel like?

‘‘Those are the times where I really go inwards,’’ Lassila says, ‘‘and I’m quiet and completely channelled and totally focused on what I’m doing.’’

While she may appear calm under pressure, this is far from the truth.

‘‘I’ve got such extreme fear of failing or even fear of success,’’ she says. ‘‘A lot of people think I’m a cool customer and I’m just aggressive and fearless, but I’m not. I’m feeling so many emotions at once.’’

The Will to Fly opens on March 10.

See original article here.