By Michael Shields
VIENNA, Jan 29 (Reuters) - Growing up in Eisenerz in Austria's deep Erzberg valley, Daniela Iraschko never had any doubt that ski jumping was a sport for girls.
Now she is set to join a select group of women competing for the first time for Olympic medals in the event - until now a men-only affair - at the Sochi Games next month.
"We were a clique. Although I was the only girl when we started together in Eisenerz, it was always a good fit. It is easier to start ski jumping when a jump is right next door. You get to thinking about it no matter if you are a girl or a boy," she told Reuters in an interview.
That was in 1995 in the old Styrian Alpine mining town - Eisenerz is German for iron ore - that has produced many top jumpers.
Now 30, the former world champion has adopted the surname Iraschko-Stolz after marrying her lesbian partner last year, becoming a rare Austrian athlete to come out openly as gay.
"I don't want to hide myself," she once told the Kurier newspaper. "I never cared at all what other people think about me."
Strict Russian laws cracking down on homosexuals have become a political talking point ahead of Sochi, but the first woman to clear the 200-metre jump mark in 2003 prefers to speak these days about her athletic prowess and medal dreams.
"The goal is always to win a medal or else you don't go to the Olympics. The goal is to give your all and what happens happens. It is a dream just to be able to compete."
Iraschko, who finished ninth in a tune-up meet in Japan this month, is keen to get back to the jump in Sochi that she tried out during a rehearsal event at the venue.
"Sochi is one of my favourite jumps. I have absolutely nothing against holding the Olympic Games on this ramp."
As she rockets off the end of the ramp and gets airborne, Iraschko focuses on just one thing: "My goal is always to stay up as long as possible, but so far I have always landed.
"It is a bit of an urge for risk. You have no red button, no parachute and no engine to kick in for emergencies. You are entirely on your own for everything, for flying. That is why a good jump feels like freedom. It is indescribable when you jump far, and indescribably awful when you don't."
She feels for Austrian jump team mate Thomas Morgenstern, who still plans to compete in Sochi just a month after a horrible spill that put him in hospital, but said jumpers need to put the thought of falling out of mind.
"It is not news that ski jumping is more dangerous than playing chess," she said, admiring Morgenstern's ability to return from being "half dead" two weeks ago.
"Of course it is never nice to see (a bad fall), and it is even tougher when it is someone you like and know well. But accidents happen. If you want to live completely safely, then lock yourself up."
Iraschko, who sometimes dyes her blond hair neon colours, played down speculation that her bold defence of gay people and athletes could have won her the honour of carrying Austria's flag for the delegation in Sochi.
"I don't know anything about it, but I find it rather hard to imagine," she said. "I am an athlete like all the others."
Austria's flag-carrying duties have actually been given to Alpine skier Benni Raich. (Reporting by Michael Shields, editing by Martyn Herman)