Managing personalities is a responsibility of most coaches. For U.S. women’s ski jumping coach Alan Alborn, with Sarah Hendrickson among his charges, it’s almost a full-time job.
Heading into Friday’s FIS Ski Jumping World Cup season-opening women’s normal hill event in Lillehammer, Norway, Alborn sounds challenged trying to handle his reigning world champion’s drive, lest she flame out at the ripe age of 20.
“Sarah is particularly difficult,” Alborn said. “She wants to win. She wants to win so badly she will sacrifice her body for the win. It’s a pretty difficult characteristic to work with.”
Hendrickson won the inaugural overall women’s world cup competition in 2012 at 17. She claimed the normal hill title a year later at the world championships. Alborn feels that while Hendrickson’s success has been driven by her zeal to compete, it’s an intensity that needs to be controlled — hopefully by him or travel coach Vasja Bajc.
“Sarah is a tiger,” Alborn said. “If I myself or Vasja doesn’t say something, she’ll go full throttle. Frankly, it’s the reason she has been so successful. That is her personality.
“But it’s more mature now. She’s had a lot of hard lessons, and what she’s learned from her injuries has to be more of strategy, discussion, what’s going on in her training, her daily life. She wants to be at such a high level.”
The lessons Alborn hopes Hendrickson has learned from particularly are her knee injuries the past two seasons suffered in training. She returned from surgery two years ago to win her world championship gold, but last year’s made her settle for 21st at the Olympic Winter Games — disappointing since Hendrickson was a lead campaigner to get the women’s sport included in the Sochi Games.
With fellow Olympian Lindsey Van still rehabilitating her knee injury, Abby Hughes recovering from her latest chronic knee issues and summer surgery and Alissa Johnson returning to nursing school, Alborn is looking to Hendrickson and Olympian Jessica Jerome, 25, to lead the younger and/or lesser-experienced members of Team USA as it builds toward the next Olympic Winter Games in PyeongChang, South Korea, in 2018. Jerome’s 10th-place finish in Sochi was the best by any U.S. ski jumper.
For her part, Hendrickson expressed a concern about her confidence on long jumps in interviews earlier this fall. But she’s also said she’s aiming for additional world cup and world championship crowns.
“I am really excited about defending my world champion title in Falun (Sweden),” she told the FIS website in October. “It took 14 months, but I’m back. I’m stronger than ever now. It was hard work, but it’s nice that I’m finally past that.
Her buoyant attitude might be attributable to her pair of second-place finishes in two normal hill events at a Continental Cup competition, the second tier of ski jumping, in September in Trondheim, Norway. The only woman better than her was Japan’s Sara Takanashi, the reigning two-time world cup champion who also is the only woman with more world cup victories (24) than Hendrickson (13).
Also encouraging for Team USA were the top-13 finishes in the Continental Cup event for Nita Englund, Tara Geraghty-Moats and Nina Lussi.
The men’s season is already three events old, having begun Nov. 21 with a large hill individual event and a team event in Klingenthal, Germany. Twenty-five-year-old Nick Fairall, 26-year-old Nick Alexander and three-time Olympian Anders Johnson, 25, so far have represented the United States, which finished last of 12 teams in the one team event his season in Klingenthal. Those three, and Peter Frenette, represented the United States in Sochi. Alexander and Fairall finished 35th in the normal and large hill, respectively, for Team USA’s best individual results. The Americans finished 10th in the team event.
The Team USA women are more of a hope than the men to earn medals and accolades this season. But that will require a team effort.
“It’s a rookie team this year,” Alborn said. “The veterans: Jessica and Sarah, and three rookies. Based on that, a Nations Cup is possible, especially if Sarah and Jessica have strong seasons and the younger members have consistently solid seasons.”
Brian Trusdell has covered four FIFA World Cups and six Olympic Games during his more than 30 years as a sportswriter, mostly with the Associated Press and Bloomberg News. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.