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.
As the leaves start to change, I sit and reflect on another summer coming and going. I always remember elders telling me how fast time goes but feel like my reaction was always an eye roll. More veteran Olympians than I comment on how fast a four-year cycle is, but I remember thinking I had all the time in the world after Sochi. I am here to tell you that everyone is, in fact, correct: Time flies.
Two weeks ago, I walked through the whirlwind Team USA Media Summit in Park City, Utah, for the second time in my career – completely shocked by how I felt like I had just been there talking about 2014. This time, not in a wheelchair, this time, not talking about women ski jumpers getting their first event in the Games, but rather there as an average athlete healthy and training to become a two-time Olympian.
For myself, the hype of the 2018 Games has been much lower than last time. Granted, I have had few good results in recent years and the historic event of women’s ski jumping has come and gone. I am really thankful for the craziness of that first time so I can embrace this new silent approach. The pressure feels less and the realization of going into an Olympics healthy is something my 23-year-old self appreciates more than my teenage years. There are strengths you gain after fighting so many challenges – the positivity of just being me and the appreciation of having the opportunity to going to an Olympics feel like enough.
My training this summer has gone better than planned. Although my knee is not and never will be pain-free, the confidence and strength that I have built physically and mentally is something I am really proud of. I spent seven weeks in Europe training with my team and coach with a home base in Slovenia. We traveled to five grand prix events (summer world cups) to get back into competition mode and dial in specifics to work on before winter starts. I had a couple top-10 finishes, and that is a great start and gives me confidence to keep building on that level.
One of the top topics I was asked about at the media summit was the mental side of my sport and specifically my comeback from multiple surgeries. I believe I am a mentally tough person, but these injuries have taken every ounce of strength. It is to trust again: to trust the process, to trust my coach, to trust my knee and to trust my strength.
When you ski jump, you stand at the top of a steep, two-tracked slope, speeding 55 mph off a jump. Needless to say, there is no stopping once you put your skis in the track. My commitment has to start from the beginning and I need to have trust in every bit of my body. This trust did not come easy. It has taken almost two years to believe that I was okay and that I was strong enough to be at the top of the ski jump again. I took many jumps not feeling that trust but trying to find it day after day.
The hardest trust of all comes from my coach, watching the wind, knowing when the conditions are within the safety zone, trying to forget the tragedies from the past. Doctors, physical therapists, coaches and family told me hundreds of time to trust my knee but not until this past month did I feel it in my gut. Just like someone cannot tell you to have passion, you have to feel the flame from within to succeed.
With all that said, the training and mental process has exceeded my expectations. My level of jumping is not perfect. For once in my life I am content with that reality of imperfection. I accepted that my goal this summer wasn’t to be on top or have my perfect jumps but to continue my process of trust and love.
After something (like ski jumping) breaks your heart multiple times, it is hard to forgive and move on. But my forgiveness and trust that I have gained this summer is what brought my passion back. For the first time in years, I wake up on ski jump mornings excited to get back in the air knowing it is where I love to be. I know the hard days are not over, but as my coach always says, once Sarah flies for fun, you better watch out. As for now, I’m just on autopilot enjoying where I am, knowing I worked so hard to be in this exact spot. Trust the process, trust the challenges, but most importantly trust yourself.