She tele and Nordi skis, she ski jumps, she shoots, she races biathlon and she’s on her way to the next stop on the World Cup, Kazakhstan. Meet Fairlee, Vermont’s 22-year-old ski meister, Tara Geraghty-Moats.
Update: This story originally appeared in our January 2016 print edition of VT Ski + Ride. On October 18, 2017 USA Nordic Sport officially announced the members of the first ever USA Nordic Sport Women’s Ski Jumping National Team. Nita Englund, Tara Geraghty-Moats, Sarah Hendrickson, and Abby Ringquist have all been named to the “A” team based on results accumulated over the past year that meet the criteria established by USA Nordic.
Ask Tara Geraghty-Moats what it is like to climb 26 stories to the top of a ski jump—so high people on the ground become ants. Ask how she manages to clench her body into a tuck as she hurtles down a narrow 36-degree incline at 60 mph. Ask her what goes through her mind when she explodes off the edge into nothingness, flying the length of a football field.
Or how it feels to touch back down on earth.
Ask her any of those questions and her eyes light up like blue ice.
“There is nothing like ski jumping,” she says without hesitation. “It’s like putting your hand out the window when you are speeding down a highway: you feel the push of wind against you, holding you up, you’re floating on air,” says Tara. “I was hooked from the first time I jumped.”
That was at age 9, when she launched off the jump at Storrs Pond Recreation Area in Hanover, N.H., just down the road from her home in Fairlee, Vt.
This past December, Tara, now 22, surprised everyone by going a distance of 92 meters on her first jump in the World Cup opener in Lillehammer, Norway. She finished 17th overall, becoming the leading American woman.
It was a surprise for her as well. Last season was Tara’s first time on the World Cup circuit. This past summer, she was suspended from the U.S. Ski Team for failing to make a final payment of her $7,000 contribution toward training and travel. “I’d paid off most of what I owed but didn’t get the last $1,000 or so in on time,” she says. “So I was suspended and couldn’t go to any of the training camps last summer.”
Instead of heading to Slovenia to train with the team, she stayed home in Vermont and worked on a farm, spending 10-hour days pulling organic vegetables and weeding the fields to earn the money. Her sponsors—Vermont’s Ibex, Darn Tough, and Mad River Glen—have helped, but the costs of competing are high.
For training, she improvised with her own program: setting up tires to jump over, running and mountain biking.
“Farming was tough work,” she says with a sigh. “But I loved it and in the end, I think it made me stronger.”
STRENGTH is not something Tara is short on. Born with the lung-busting meconian aspiration syndrome, she spent her first four weeks in the intensive care unit. During that time, scar tissue formed in her lungs, leaving her with asthma that’s plagued her all her life.
Her mother, Betsey Geraghty—a bike racer, bike mechanic and outdoor educator—didn’t let that stop her daughter. “I wanted to help her use her lungs as early as I could.” She put Tara on skis at age 2. By age 5, Tara was telemarking at Mad River Glen behind her mom and dad, Alan Moats, a software designer and a former member of the U.S. Telemark Team.
She grew up separately from her older half-sister, Charlotte Moats, who was, at the time, a burgeoning alpine star and Burke Mountain Academy grad. A decade older, Charlotte would go on to earn a gold medal in slalom at the Junior Olympics, win the 2002 World Endurance Ski Championships, log 11 first descents in Alaska and appear in multiple ski films.
At age 8, Tara was competing in Nordic races. At age 9, she did her first Vermont 50 mountain bike race on a tandem with her father. The next year, she did it on her own and has completed the grueling 50-mile cross-country trail race twice since.
Both Tara’s mother and grandmother grew up spending summers at the Aloha Foundation’s camp on Lake Morey, which has been dedicated to helping girls discover “their most adventurous selves” for more than a century. Betsey Geraghty went on to become a counselor there, taught outdoor education and got a job at Omer and Bob’s, the outdoor retailer in Lebanon, N.H. where she still works.
From third grade on, Geraghty home-schooled Tara. She grew up learning in the morning, going out for a ski or a bike then coming back home and picking up the books. “At night, we’d go jump under the lights at Storrs Pond. While I loved cross-country skiing and did well at it, for me that was like meat and potatoes. Ski jumping was dessert.”
Tara started with the small jumps then worked her way up to the 90K “normal hill” mark (so named because the par distance for that jump is 90 meters from the launch ramp) and the “large hill,” with its 120K mark.
By age 15, she was a multi-time medalist in the junior Nordic Nationals and was jumping well enough to be named to the USSA Visa Development Team. At 16, she had done well enough in her studies to enroll in online college classes at Community College of Vermont. “When she took the tests to get in, the people at CCV said they hadn’t seen scores that high in a long time,” says Betsey Geraghty.
THEN LIFE FELL APART: her parents split up and, at 16, Tara had her first serious injury.
While competing at Lake Placid’s 90K jump she got caught by a gust of wind, flew past the sloped landing area to the flats and smacked down. “I saw it happen. For a long time after I didn’t want to watch another ski jump,” Betsey Geraghty recalls.
Tara just remembers hearing a ‘crunch.’ “I never crashed but I landed hard, like when you jump off a high place and land with a thud.” She tore three ligaments, including her ACL and broke her tibia. The first surgery didn’t hold so after nearly six months of recovery she went back under the knife. “My doctor said I would never jump or run again,” she remembers.
Tara then did the one thing that seemed to make sense for an injured ski jumper and former cross country ski racer: she picked up a gun.
Video above: Geraghty-Moats jumping in Feburary, 2016 at the Lahti, Finland World Cup where she had her best finish, placing 15th overall.
“Like a lot of Vermont kids, we had guns and I was on crutches when I first began to shoot,” she says. She shot at targets and at wild turkeys. “The shooting taught me to steady my nerves.” As her knee recovered she started cross-country skiing again, this time with an eye toward competing in biathlon. In her third race, she qualified for the 2011 Biathlon Worlds in Czech Republic.
In 2012-13 Tara went to school in Sweden for a year and to train. “All my classes were in Swedish so I picked it up pretty quickly,” she says with a laugh. She also picked up a few things about biathlon: she entered and won the Swedish Nationals in the junior sprint category, beating the current junior world champion.
In April, 2014 Tara turned 21. She could no longer compete as a junior and she had choices to make. “I’ve never had a vision like ‘Oh, I want to be in the Olympics,” she says with quiet confidence, “I’ve just gone from race to race hoping I can do better and doing what I love.” The problem, as Tara is the first to admit, is that she loves skiing of all types. “My coaches keep telling me I have to focus on one sport,” she says
Tara was training at Lake Placid for biathlon that fall when a friend dared her to enter the ski jumping nationals, which were being held there that same week. “I hadn’t been training since I injured my knee and had jumped maybe three days in the last four years. I told him he was crazy. He said, ‘the worst you can do is finish last.’”
Without telling her biathlon coaches what she was doing, Tara took the day off from her dry land workouts, got out her five-year-old skis, and entered the event cold. She finished fifth, behind world champion Lindsay Van, 10-time national champ Jessica Jerome, Alissa Johnson and Nina Lussi. “I felt good on the jump, but had no idea I’d do as well as I did.”
Tara was back.
In 2014, she went on to earn a bronze in the Normal Hill (90K jump) Nationals at Lake Placid and another bronze at the Long Hill (120K jump) at Park City, which earned her a spot on the 2014/15 World Cup. Her best finish there was a 9th at Rasnov, Romania.
SNOW is starting to fall. It is the last day of December and it frosts the trees around the Storrs Pond jump. Tara looks up at the platform. “When I first started jumping here as a kid, there were no Olympics for women ski jumpers, and not really much to aim for. My goal was to just keep trying to do better than the last time.”
It was a long struggle to even get women’s ski jumping into the 2014 Sochi Olympics, a battle that America’s top female ski jumpers had to fight on their own.
At the time, they were the best in the world, led by the first women’s world champion, Lindsay Van (who, just prior to the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver had the longest jump off the normal hill of any athlete, male or female—105.5 meters), and the tiny then-19-year-old Sara Hendrickson—the 2011/12 World Cup winner whom many consider the best woman ski jumper ever. Both Van and Hendrickson are sitting out this season with injuries.
Now, there is a move to establish the event that seems made for Tara Geraghty-Moats: women’s Nordic combined. Nordic combined competitions (where the ski jump earns you seconds off the next leg, the cross-country race) have been around since the 1800s, have an FIS World Cup and are an Olympic sport…but just for men. Until this season the FIS had not sanctioned a Women’s Nordic Combined race. Four events will be held this winter, but Tara’s jumping calendar precludes her from competing.
In late January, the team heads to Japan: Tara and two girls she’s been friends with since they were kids: Nita Englund (who has six top-10 World Cup finishes and several medals) and Nina Lussi.
A week later, they compete in Germany, then Austria, then Kazakhstan, then Romania. “We handle our own travel, lug all our gear, convince airlines that they can take 250 cm skis and pretty much help each other out,” says Tara.
“But that’s the way it is right now for women ski jumpers,” she says with a shrug, no sign of bitterness. “We just figure it out—we do it because we love to jump.”