PARK CITY, Utah – Sarah Hendrickson is flying high again.
Hendrickson qualified for her second straight Olympic team Sunday, winning the women’s ski jumping event at the U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Nordic Combined & Ski Jumping.
“Days like these when it’s blue skies and your body feels good and my knee feels strong, those are the days I live for,” Hendrickson said.
In the winner-takes-all trials, Hendrickson, 23, defeated the rest of the nine-woman field at Utah Olympic Park, including favorite Nita Englund, for the $10,000 first prize.
Up to three more women’s ski jumpers could qualify for the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018 based on world cup results through Jan. 22.
Hendrickson, the 2013 world champion, has struggled this season on the world cup circuit.
The lone member of the 2014 U.S. Olympic Team – male or female – still competing, she has gone through a series of surgeries since an August 2013 training crash.
Following another injury to the same knee in the summer of 2015, Hendrickson took a full year off for surgery and recovery before returning to the world cup circuit in December 2016.
“It’s pretty emotional, just because the last four years have been so tough,” Hendrickson said. “A lot of people haven’t seen me since Sochi. They don’t realize that I’ve had four knee surgeries since. I was really excited after Sochi to have four years of regaining strength and getting confidence back and it just felt like I went through surgery after surgery.
“This gives me confidence that work pays off and if you keep working for your dream, then you’ll get there. And that is something that will stick with me for the rest of my life.”
Hendrickson said she hasn’t felt this good since the 2015 world championships in Sweden. She was pleased with how she handled the competition mentally, which she said is “90 percent of ski jumping.”
“Honestly we had five girls that could have won today,” Hendrickson said. “It was really anybody’s game, and when you have that, you just have to focus on yourself. You can’t control what the other girls were doing. It’s definitely a difficult field out there today and I was really thankful I was able to compete, because I wasn’t able to four years ago.”
Hendrickson was still hobbled by her recovery from knee surgery when the 2014 trials were held, but still qualified for Team USA. She has the distinction of being the first female ski jumper to compete in the Olympic Games, going first in Sochi. She finished 21st.
The weather couldn’t have been more perfect in Park City, with sunny skies and a temperature of about 36 degrees. The crowd of about 7,000 on Sunday was the largest at the Utah Olympic Park since the Olympic Winter Games Salt Lake City 2002.
“I never really get the opportunity to jump in front of a home crowd,” Hendrickson said. “For me, my goal was to have fun and to just smile today. Those who have been close to me know that’s been really challenging the last four years, and when I got up this morning, that’s what I set my mind on.”
Wearing fluorescent green and purple, Hendrickson flew 98.5 meters on her first jump on the HS100 hill, nailed the landing and flashed a big grin. The distance combined with the highest judges’ points for form and wind compensation gave her 132.2 points.
That gave Hendrickson a cushion of 6.3 points over Abby Ringquist and 15.5 over Englund.
Englund went 96 meters to finish with 238.9 points.
Then Nina Lussi uncorked a 97-meter jump, but fell on her landing to score 232.4 points. Lussi was attended by medical staff and taken away from the landing area on a sled. According to officials, she is under observation for a potential knee injury.
“It’s hard to watch anybody go down,” Hendrickson said. “Obviously, I know what it’s like to be injured, and that feeling of everything flashing before your eyes let alone the pain. So to see Nina at the bottom of the hill was really tough and another mental barrier that I had to overcome in order to just refocus on myself and what I had to do on the jump because Abby and I still had to go.
“It was really difficult and I wish Nina all the best and hope it’s just a scare and she can come back.”
Hendrickson, who is close with Ringquist as a fellow Park City-ite, said she saw the shock on Ringquist’s face.
“I told her to shake it off and refocus on yourself and keep going and that’s what we did,” Hendrickson said.
Because of the accident, the bar was lowered one gate for Ringquist and Hendrickson, the final two competitors. Because their distances would potentially not be as far, they each received 3.2 points in gate compensation.
Ringquist then posted a jump of 91.5 meters and a total of 248.1 points.
Hendrickson went 93.5 meters and again had the highest judges’ points for style, finishing with 263.4 points.
She held her face in her hands, then exulted in front of the crowd.
“I remember when I was 7 years old and I walked up from my house to watch the men’s ski jumping (at the 2002 Games),” Hendrickson said. “That’s when I fell in love with ski jumping. I thought it was so unique, so beautiful and something technical that I wanted to be a part of.
“I’m basically a result of the 2002 Olympic legacy that Park City and Salt Lake has continued to develop for younger athletes.”
Englund said Hendrickson’s victory “was very well-earned, especially after waiting and Nina having her injury. That’s a big mental pressure at the top of the ski jumps.”
And she said Hendrickson has been a good role model since she joined the world cup circuit full-time in 2015.
“She knows all the ropes of it and gave me good advice and guided me,” Englund said.
Hendrickson has not yet competed at the PyeongChang 2018 venue in Alpensia. She was struggling with knee pain when the test event was held and opted to rest before the world championships.
“It’s kind of hard to think that I’ve never jumped there,” she said. “Sometimes the best way is to go in blind. If you’re jumping well, you can jump well on any ski jump. It’s a little bit bigger (than Park City). I like flying hills, the bigger, the better for me, so just focus on my basics and relax and enjoy being a two-time Olympian.”