Lydia Lassila OAM (nee Ierodiaconou) was inducted into the Sport Australia Hall of Fame in 2023 as an Athlete Member for her contribution to the sport of aerial skiing.
Lydia Lassila was one of Australia’s most decorated and inspirational Winter Olympic athletes, winning a gold medal and a bronze medal in a stunningly successful career.
She transformed from a young gymnast to an athlete prepared to put her body through the trials and tribulations of one of the most dangerous sporting pursuits – aerial skiing – and in doing so became the first Australian female to compete in five Winter Olympics.
She made her Winter Games debut in 2002, then suffered a near career-ending crash on a jump in Torino in 2006, rupturing her anterior cruciate ligament, just eight months after suffering a similar injury in training.
Lassila returned in 2010 and delivered a spectacular jump that won her the Olympic gold medal, becoming the second Australian to win aerials gold after Alisa Camplin in 2002.
She won The Don, the annual Sport Australia Hall of Fame award given to the team or athlete that best inspired a nation.
She competed in two more Winter Olympics, winning a bronze in 2014 and bowing out in 2018 after an uplifting career that inspired the dream in a new generation of competitors.
Courage doesn’t mean the absence of fear; it just means that deep in the recesses of the mind there is something that outweighs those unsettling feelings of fear.
That almost sums up the mindset and drive of five-time Winter Olympic athlete Lydia Lassila (nee Ierodiaconou), whose career as an aerial skier helped to inspire a nation, encourage the next generation of young athletes and left those watching her with a sense of awe.
Her long and decorated career was one of soaring highs as well as a few crushing falls, but through it all she never gave up on her dream of being the best she possibly could be.
It’s a dream that started with humble beginnings, growing up as part of a Greek-Cypriot and Italian family and with hopes that one day her talent as a gymnast would take her to the Olympics. It would, but in a very different discipline and with a very different climate zone.
After an injury at 16 forced her to change her sport, she put her aerobatic skills to a different purpose, becoming part of an ambitious program to turn former gymnasts into aerial skiers. It gave her a new purpose on an old dream, and within two years she was competing for Australia at the 2002 Olympics, where she finished a creditable eight.
Then came the moment in 2006 where it all seemed to go wrong. Months earlier she had ruptured her anterior cruciate ligament in training, but she had an Achilles tendon knee graft to her damaged knee in a bold attempt to be back competing for the 2006 Winter Olympics.
It allowed her to return to the snow for the Torino Games, but what happened next would have pushed less resilient competitors into premature retirement. In the second round of qualifying, her knee collapsed under her as she tried to land an exceedingly tough jump, which resulted in her re-injuring the ACL.
It could so easily have been the end. But with the examples of Alisa Camplin and Jacqui Cooper swirling in her mind – Winter Olympians who pushed on after wrecking their knees – Lassila vowed to never give up and to work smarter, not necessarily harder.
It all came to fruition in spectacular fashion in 2010 when she soared so high and so effortlessly that the aerial gold was hers.
The pain had been temporary; the golden glow would last forever as a nation celebrated her triumph along with Torah Bright’s victory in the women’s halfpipe snowboarding.
Her victory against the odds saw Lassila awarded the prestigious The Don award by the Sports Australia Hall of Fame committee for her extraordinary achievements in 2010.
Having had her first child in 2011, she returned to the sport determined for more success, with her ambitions still soaring.
At the Sochi Winter Olympics in 2014, she attempted something that had never been landed before – a ‘quad-twisting triple somersault’ or as some called it ‘a back full-double-full-full’ – knowing she had to produce it to win the gold.
She almost nailed it, stunning the crowd, soaring through the air with audacity and grace before landing on her skis. The sheer momentum of the landing made her motion backwards and she finished on her back. It cost her the points that would have won the gold medal, but it was enough for bronze, as it became a moment in history for lovers of the aerials.
Incredibly, she wasn’t finished.
After having her second child, and having made a documentary about her career, The Will to Fly, Lassila returned to the aerials and created more history by becoming the first Australian woman to compete at five Winter Olympics at the 2018 Games in PyeongChang.
While her performance at her fifth Olympics did not result in her bringing home another medal, it was a testament to her endurance and her will to follow her dreams, even as a 34-year-old mother who had pushed her body to the limits on the skis.
Her World Cup career was similarly outstanding; but her Olympic achievements were breathtaking.
Honours & Achievements
- 2010: Australian Institute of Sport ‘Athlete of the Year’
- 2010: Sport Australia Hall of Fame, ‘The Don’ Award
- 2010: Governor’s Award for the Victorian Sportsperson of the Year
- 2010: Victorian Female Athlete of the Year- Kitty McEwan Award
- 2010: Ski and Snowboard Australia Athlete of the Year
- 2012: Awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia
Photo courtesy News Corp Australia.