THE WILL TO FLY
G, 95 minutes, opens Thursday
Directors: Leo Baker, Katie Bender
The few people in the world who can do it modestly call it a trick. It’s an aerial ski-jump, which sends the body spearing high in the air to execute a series of straight-backed somersaults while spinning like a top.
High divers do it, too, without the extra degree of difficulty involved in manoeuvring to make an upright landing with a pair of skis on a firm bed of snow.
The first woman to try it in Olympic competition is an Australian, Lydia Lassila, who conceived this ambition at the age of 13. And even after two knee reconstructions, an Olympic gold medal win and the birth of a son, she kept on wanting to do it.
She’s one of a small group of women who gravitated towards aerial skiing from gymnastics. As well as being fearless, this elite band of close friends and fierce rivals are forthright and funny and their remarks about one another bring an engaging candour to this documentary profile of Lassila. It’s an intimate portrait, done by someone thoroughly acquainted with the world in which it’s set.
The film’s producer and co-director, Katie Bender, is a former gymnast and aerial skier who trained with Lassila in her early days and she and her fellow filmmaker Leo Baker trailed her for two years as she worked towards the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics in Russia, suffering a variety of injuries and other setbacks while her devoted family did their best to keep calm.
The oldest and most experienced of her aerial skiing contemporaries is Jacqui Cooper, who’s also the film’s most likeable talent. Tall and rangy with a droll attitude and a comprehensive knowledge of the sport, its history and the sacrifices it demands of its obsessed disciples, she’s both amazed and amused by Lassila’s confidence, stamina and stoicism.
Cooper was a world champion when she and Lassila first met – something which failed to intimidate the young Lydia. ‘‘What sort of acrobatic moron are you?’’ was her response on learning how long Cooper had taken to master the somersault with twist.
Even so, they bonded, coming back from similar knee injuries and sharing their discontent over the fact that Australia doesn’t have more snow and better training facilities.
Aerial skiers practise on water – sometimes in country dams. In one shot, taken from the wealth of archival footage that adds scope and context to the story, one of them surfaces from a jump with a small crab attached to her finger.
The film climaxes at Sochi, where Lassila is in contention for the gold with two Chinese champions and a Belorussian. But her real competition comes from within as she finally dares to take on the challenge she’s spent decades preparing for, the quadruple-twisting triple somersault. It’s a grand finale to a revealing exploration of the very nature of the competitive spirit.
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