Sarah Hendrickson is one of the most decorated female ski jumpers in history. The 22-year-old has 25 world cup podiums to her name, including 13 wins. Hendrickson is the 2013 world champion and in 2014 became the first woman ever to jump at the Olympics. She is blogging for TeamUSA.org as she attempts to make history at a second Olympic Winter Games in 2018.
You see other amazing athletes do it, and you can’t help but fantasize it for yourself: the perfect comeback season. After all the hard work, you return and the success starts right where you left off pre-injury. You expect your mental toughness to function without glitches and your passion fuels you right back to victory. The Lindsey Vonns and the Ted Ligetys of the world inspire us to follow in their amazing comeback motives.
After 18 months off the ski jump, I returned to the competitive world of ski jumping this past December. As some of you may have remembered, I suffered a serious knee injury just six months prior to the Sochi Games in 2014. After a successful season post-Olympic year, I went through another ACL tear on the same right knee. It took two surgeries and a year and half to get back to flying again.
I contemplated giving up my dream of Olympic gold that day as I walked out of the doctor’s office with the news of this extensive rehab. But only for a second. My head was filled with sadness, but my heart knew I needed to push on. One more chance to get this knee right and to fly back to where I belong. I knew I had more to give to this sport and I was not ready to walk away.
Growing up ski jumping, I never had fear. I had coaches I trusted and programs that prepared me for success. Despite the typical reaction that I am “crazy and insane,” ski jumping rarely scared me. I will tell you that jumping after 18 months off scared the living daylights out of me. I worked with a sports psych, but I would be lying to say that I didn’t have nightmares for two weeks prior to those first jumps.
My main issue was trust. I actually thought I would land and my knee would explode on impact. It had twice before so why would it not this time? But I had to prove to myself that my hard work would pay off. I would regret never ski jumping again if I walked away from those long months of rehab without the cherry on top. I had to push past that fear and trust myself. I needed to fly again.
In a short summary, I struggled all season long. Most people recognized how unhappy I looked after each competition. I was my worst critic when it came to results as most supporters understood how difficult it would be to come back to the world cup season with only 20 training jumps. What I struggled with most was pain. It was good to be jumping again but the pain just kept coming back. Yet each day, I sat on the edge of my bed, addressed the pain and made the decision to jump that day. It took every ounce of energy to get through three jumps on a competition day. Staying mentally focused and pushing away the pain
was draining. But I did it. I finished the season and I am so much stronger because of it.
My knee is fine but it needs to rest. I have high expectations for the Olympic year and I am hungry for success. I am looking forward to a season of training versus a summer of rehab, and I know I can stand where I have dreamed of standing. My biggest mantra that has remained the same over these years of injuries. I do everything I can each day. It is so easy to get overwhelmed by the future but if you stop, breathe and do what you can in the moment, that is all you can control. And yes, I need to take my own advice, but I call that learning.