One of the best and most moving Australian documentaries I have seen, The Will to Fly is presented like a tension-filled drama, where you are often at the edge of your seat. The life and times of Olympic Gold aerial skier Lydia Lassila are captured in all their glory and heartache. Guts are a given, but injuries, missed opportunities and major setbacks are another. Fortunately, Lassila is nothing if not tenacious.
She has tasted rousing success and tearful disappointment. After winning the ultimate prize at the 2010 Winter Games with a world record score, still held today, Lassila returned to the sport as a young mother. She wanted to become the first woman to perform the most complex acrobatic manoeuvre – a quadruple twisting, triple somersault – something previously only achieved by a man.
While The Will to Fly is, no doubt, an inspirational yarn, hers is also a tale of single-minded determination. It is a battle of the mind that changes its complexion from that of callow youth to responsible mother, thereby adding significant weight. You see, there is undoubtedly a selfishness about pursuing one’s passion at the expense of all else.
The filmmakers are Katie Bender – who trained under Lassila as a young gymnast and later with her on the Australian aerial ski team – and Leo Baker – who is also the cinematographer. They have crafted a rich, powerful and ever so poignant story. Well, it is actually more than one story. There are two arcs, the first Lassila as a young gymnast with dashed dreams, finally attaining her dream of Gold in Vancouver in 2010. Then we have her returning to the sport after having a child (adorable and charismatic as he is), with the extra pressures of being an Olympic champion and a parent juggling logistics and responsibilities. That is not to overlook the self-inflicted stresses of wanting to do something that hadn’t been done before.
What an emotion-filled journey! At times, I was genuinely shocked (in particular when these competitors fell hard and let out wails that underpinned their pain), moved to tears, immensely proud and excited. It is dramatic and exhilarating. We see snippets of Lassila growing up and setting large goals at a relatively young age. The interviews with fellow competitors, coaches and family (such dynamic, erudite individuals all) add a great deal to the vision. I learnt how much Australians have contributed to a sport that was traditionally the domain of the Europeans. I also learnt how resilient and gusty women like Lassila and Jacqui Cooper and Alisa Camplin are. And how they, together with Kirstie Marshall, have continued to push the sport forward and raise the bar of what is possible for Aussie women.
In the end, it is a deeply personal story that benefits enormously from the support of such a close-knit and well-presented family – Lassila’s delightful parents and siblings, her husband and son, and mother-in-law. You are left with the impression that her husband, Lauri ‘Late’ Lassila, a Finnish mogul skier, himself once a world-class athlete, is a real gem. As for their curious, wide-eyed, smart-as son, Kai, what a beauty! He certainly adds another invaluable dimension to the story, which would not have been quite so special without him.
Not just for sports buffs, this is a deeply human tale that will move you. Rated G, The Will to Fly scores an 8½ out of 10.
Director: Kate Bender and Leo Baker
Release Date: 10 March 2016
David Edwards is the editor of The Blurb and a contributor on film and television