Sarah Hendrickson’s career has only just begun. She won’t even be 20 years old until August, and already she’s a world champion. Nobody would be shocked if one day she wins an Olympic gold medal. In fact, people would probably be more shocked if she didn’t. And yet, no matter what Hendrickson accomplishes from this point forward, even if she goes on to realize her very real potential of becoming one of the all-time great women’s ski jumpers, the most significant moment of her career, when it’s all said and done, will likely have come in the midst of a 21st-place finish.
“That’s obviously not the result I was hoping for,” Hendrickson says of her finish at this past February’s Olympic Winter Games in Sochi, Russia. “But at the same time, I am honored to have been a part of history.”
|(L-R) Lindsey Van, Jessica Jerome and Sarah Hendrickson pose
in the Olympic Park during the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter
Games on Feb. 12, 2014 in Sochi, Russia.
In reality, Hendrickson was much more than just a part of history. As the first female ski jumper to ever jump in the Olympics, she was history. Men have been ski jumping in the Olympic Games since 1924, but it wasn’t until 2011 — after a fight that had begun in 2002 and included a 2008 discrimination lawsuit spearheaded by Hendrickson’s teammates Lindsey Van and Jessica Jerome — that the women were finally approved for Olympic competition in Sochi.
Ski jumping, for those unfamiliar, is something of an insane endeavor. Launching themselves off a 300-foot slope at speeds better than 60 mph, ski jumpers travel upwards of 400 feet in the air. It’s nuts. No two ways about it. But Hendrickson, born and raised in Park City, Utah, pretty much America’s motherland of winter sports, grew up on skis. Her bother, Nick, now a world-class Nordic combined skier, started ski jumping when he was 8, and Sarah couldn’t wait to follow in his footsteps.
The fear factor was all part of it. She loved the rush. She loved “getting up in the hills and flying farther and farther” through the air. By the time she was 10 years old she was already standing out. Coaches told her that she had talent, and that if she kept at the sport, she could have a real future. She recalls walking from her house to watch the men jump at the 2002 Winter Games, and she dedicated herself to the sport full-time when she transferred to the Winter Sports School in Park City to finish high school.
“When I found out that women were going to be included in the Olympics, that became my goal,” Hendrickson said. “That’s when I set my sights on getting to Sochi.”
Right away, Hendrickson was a medal favorite for Sochi. In 2012, at just 17 years old, she took home the overall world cup title after winning an incredible nine of 13 events. The next year she ascended as high as No. 2 in the world rankings and won the inaugural world championship in Val di Fiemme, Italy.
“I was really excited to win the world championship,” she said. “The overall title was great, but that’s over the whole year. The world championship, that’s just one day where you have to be the best, so that was a huge confidence boost for me that I could step into that kind of pressure and media attention and perform.”
Indeed, Hendrickson was on her way. As the calendar turned to summer, she and her teammates were at a training camp in Germany, where she says she was “jumping better than ever.” Then, out of nowhere, a headwind came up the hill, and when she didn’t adjust accordingly, the wind, combined with how well she was jumping, sent her on a flight path totaling almost 500 feet — some 15 meters farther than she’d anticipated. She crash-landed in a bad spot, on flat ground rather than the incline, at which point, in her words, her right knee “exploded.”
Suddenly, less than six months before Sochi, she had torn her both her ACL and meniscus, and her MCL had been ripped completely off the bone.
“I had no idea if I had time to make it back for the Olympics, but when my doctor looked me in the eye and told me it was possible, I took that to heart and ran with it,” Hendrickson said. “I remember a lot of people rolling their eyes when I told them I was going to make it back, like I was crazy. Looking back, it was a little crazy.”
A typical ACL recovery period, at the very least, is six months. Some people are out for up to a year. But Hendrickson, as she had promised, made it to Sochi in a little over five months. Her knee wasn’t near fully healed. It was still weak and swollen. But she was there. And if silver linings exist, if things really do happen for a reason, think about this: The jumping order at the Olympic Games is determined by the overall world cup rankings, with the lowest-ranked jumper going first. Since Hendrickson hadn’t competed, on account of her injury, since the previous March, she was entirely unranked and thus received the No. 1 bib — meaning she would be the first woman ski jumper to ever compete at the Olympic Games.
“That’s how I have to look at it,” she says. “Things happen for a reason. It was frustrating, knowing that I could be the best in the world if my knee wasn’t holding me back. But again, opening up the competition as the first jumper was a huge, huge honor. To share in all the hard work, not just on the athletic side but the political side, too, the fight for our sport to make it to the Olympics in the first place, that was really special.”
Moving forward, the women’s ski jumping fight is far from over. They made it to the Games, yes. But they still struggle for support. They still lack full sponsorship. They still raise nearly all of their own money, for everything from trainers to coaches to travel expenses, through their own fundraising efforts. The spotlight of the Games has helped, and Hendrickson, no doubt, plays a prominent role as the face of her sport. She’s young, she’s pretty, and she’s hugely talented. As USA Today’s Kelly Whiteside put it, Hendrickson is the “present and future” of women’s ski jumping, and she takes that responsibility seriously.
“I owe everything to Lindsey (Van) and Jessica (Jerome),” Hendrickson says. “Those girls, along with some other girls from around the world, they dealt with all the media and court hearings and everything that came with that quest for equality. They made all of our dreams come true, and now it’s my turn to get involved and help inspire the next group of girls.
“For me, I’ve gained so much experience and mental strength just with everything I went through, and now I’m just excited about these next four years and getting ready for (South) Korea. I’ve been to the Olympics. Now I want to win the gold.”