Australians love sport. It’s a part of this nation’s character as indispensable as the ANZACs, casual racism and having a sausage in bread when you go to Bunnings on a weekend morning. Once a year a horse race stops the nation and our sporting heroes sit alongside military generals and politicians as the icons of this land – Sir Donald Bradman, Sir Douglas Mawson, Lionel Rose, Dawn Fraser, Rod Laver and Phar Lap. Think of Australia and you think of our sporting culture. What you’re less likely to think of is the Winter Olympics, after all who actually does think about the Winter Olympics except for Scandinavians and comedians looking for any easy target.
There are only a few mountains in the Alpine region that get regular snowfall each year (interesting fact though: the Snowy Mountains receive more snow each year than Switzerland gets as a whole) and yet with limited training facilities and only a few months of the year where the powder is good enough to ski on, Australia has produced in the last three decades one of the most successful women’s aerial skiing teams in the history of the sport. It is the only sport in which Australian women have won more Olympic medals than the female category of any other event, even with some fairly staggering injuries. It’s said that Australians at the Winter Olympics are like a Ferrari – they break down a lot, but boy do they look good and run smoothly.
Enter Lydia Lassila, the subject of new Australian documentary The Will to Fly made by Katie Bender and Leo Baker. A gold and bronze medalist who competed at both the 2010 Vancouver and 2014 Sochi Olympics, Lassila is the – quite literal – gold standard of Australian athletes. She grew up in country Victoria, and from her beginnings as a little pig-tailed girl donned in little athletics gear she demonstrated a determination that shines through to this day. She always said that her dream was to go to the Olympics and unlike most other childhood dreams, she made this one come true.
As a brief tangent, an interesting thing about Lassila is that she’s living proof of Australian multiculturalism. Her parents are from both sides of the Ionian, with her father Greek-Cypriot and her mother Italian. Her husband comes from Finland and her son is half-Finnish and bilingual. Couple this with the fact that she competes all over the world in an international competition and what emerges is a rather rosy picture of the state of international relations. Far from the focal point of the documentary but a great sub textual pick up nonetheless.
What is it about the world of sport that fascinates us? Perhaps it’s the idea of regular people pushing themselves to their limits and beyond, meeting the true potential of what the human body and mind is able to accomplish. It’s often said in the critical community that a great film is one that shows you a world you’ve never seen before. Sports documentaries seem to tap into this vein of thinking, for while we all have a basic knowledge of what the world of sport is like, seeing the crazy amounts of time, effort and dedication it takes to compete at an Olympic level puts a lot of things in perspective. This is the appeal of the great sport documentary. Getting to witness the insanely dangerous and exhilarating speeds of Formula One of recent Oscar Winner Asif Kapadia’s Senna. The astonishing feats of human endurance and the squirm inducing injuries of Touching the Void. Or even, to a lesser extent, the mental fortitude it takes to be the world’s greatest Donkey Kong player in The King of Kong.
Lassila and the sport of aerial skiing make for a good example. The sport is judged like diving; points are awarded for take-off, jump form, landing and the degree of difficulty for the trick that is attempted. It takes the highest level of athletic skill of any sport there is, and few people have the skills let alone the boldness to even attempt aerial skiing, which takes a massive toll on both mind and body to those in the upper echelons of the sport. If you want to make your stomach turn check out the footage of Lassila badly tearing her ACL in June of 2005.
What might be the hardest jump in aerial skiing is the ‘quad-twisting triple somersault’. It’s hard to say let along to pull off. Very rarely is it even attempted in competition, and before Lassila no women had ever pulled it off. This was the trick she attempted at the penultimate moment of her career during the final jump for the gold medal at the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics. It wouldn’t be right to spoil the ending of this excellent documentary but suffice to say it’s a memorable one.
Currently in limited release, don’t miss the chance to see The Will to Fly. It is a heart-warming and inspiring look at a women who has chosen to go to her limits and beyond in pursuit of a dream. It accomplishes the astonishing feat of making the Winter Olympics interesting and from now on when we think of Australians taking home the gold at the Winter Olympics: forget Stephen Bradbury’s miraculous fluke at Salt Lake City; Lassila is the real deal.