Sarah Hendrickson has some advice for athletic girls with lofty goals.
“I always say if you want to be an Olympian, then pick ski jumping,” said Hendrickson, 23, who last month qualified for her second U.S. Olympic team. “It’s still difficult, of course, to be an Olympian, but it’s not as dense of a field as alpine skiing and soccer and those other really highly populated sports.
“You still have to qualify. It’s hard, but it’s really within reaching distance.”
Naturally Hendrickson, the 2013 world champion, is biased toward her own sport. But the numbers back her up.
Billy Demong, executive director of USA Nordic and a 2010 Olympic champion in Nordic combined, said the United States has about 900 athletes participating in ski jumping and Nordic combined, which makes it one of the top five countries in the world in terms of number of youth competing.
“If every Olympic year we’re taking four or five athletes per gender,” Demong said, “you have significantly a much higher chance to have success in a sport like ski jumping where you have fewer total participants.”
While men have competed in Olympic ski jumping since the first Winter Games in 1924, women encountered resistance to their participation. They lobbied for inclusion for years and lost a bitter court battle to get into the 2010 Games.
Finally, in April 2011, the International Olympic Committee agreed to add women’s ski jumping starting with the Olympic Winter Games Sochi 2014.
And Hendrickson became the first woman to compete on an Olympic hill by virtue of wearing the No. 1 bib.
“Being able to be a part of that historic moment with those 29 other women from across the world and just kind of breathing a sigh of relief that we had finally got our foot in the door,” she said, “it’s something I’ll remember forever.”
That door has opened to let in many more girls, who now can dream of a future in Olympic ski jumping.
“Domestically, we’ve actually seen a really amazing increase in participation,” Demong said. “In the United States last year we had a 32 percent increase in youth participation in ski jumping over the year prior, which was a 35 percent increase over the average of the last three years. And the major driver was young girls, predominantly in the Midwest and the East.
“We’ve seen a lot of young women be excited and inspired to try ski jumping and that has converted into a much higher number of youth participating and competing.”
Demong said there are 30 locations in the United States with ski jumps, of which 23 conduct youth programs from Anchorage, Alaska, to Andover, New Hampshire.
Outside the United States, girls are also flocking to the sport. Norway, Germany, Japan, Russia, Slovenia and Austria are among the top countries in the world.
“We’ve seen the growth of the sport internationally really take off,” Demong said. “The level of competition has really gotten a lot higher over the last four years in particular.”
It takes a special athlete, though, to sit on the bar, stare down the jump and then push off.
“From a really young age, you can’t have the fear,” Hendrickson said. “There are girls that will look up at the ski jump and say, ‘I never want to do that.’ And that’s totally fine. But then there are girls that look up and that’s all they want to do. And they keep wanting to go on bigger jumps.
“That’s how I was as a kid and those are the girls that you have to pay attention to. You can have adrenaline and you can be anxious, but if you’re scared of the smallest jumps, then the progression isn’t really there. So I love seeing the energy and the fire that we see on the small hills with those girls that really do want to keep jumping and go bigger.”
The feeling, Hendrickson said, is unparalleled. “It feels like if you put your hand out the car window, and you can feel the effect of the wind – it’s like that but your whole body. And time stops, and you can’t hear anything, everything’s peaceful and it’s the best feeling in the world.”
Hendrickson grew up in Park City, Utah, and went to the Salt Lake City Games in 2002, where she was captivated by ski jumping as a 7-year-old. She became a pioneer in the sport for women.
“I want to jump, just because I’m female doesn’t mean I shouldn’t be allowed to,” said Hendrickson, who won the first women’s world cup season in 2011-12. The U.S. women took home back-to-back FIS Nations Cup victories in 2012 and 2013 – the first two years of the world cup circuit.
But Hendrickson suffered a catastrophic knee injury in 2013 and was not in top form when she got to Sochi. Jessica Jerome was the top Team USA finisher, placing 10th. Lindsey Van, who won the inaugural women’s ski jumping world championship in 2009, was 15th while Henderson finished 21st.
“Just like an NFL team can win the Super Bowl and then not even make the playoffs the next year, every team goes through ups and downs,” Hendrickson said. “We just have to focus on the development and be proud of the world cup athletes at the time and support them and try to get them to the highest level again.”
It was a natural progression for Jerome and Van, who were fore jumpers for the men’s competition at the 2002 Winter Games, and Alissa Johnson to retire. Hendrickson and Abby Ringquist, who is the top American this season in the world cup with a ranking of No. 40, stayed on to lead the next generation, which includes Nita Englund, Nina Lussi and Tara Geraghty-Moats, who competed in biathlon before transitioning to ski jumping.
Hendrickson, who won the U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Ski Jumping last month, said that after her peer group, “There’s a little bit of a gap, but that’s to be expected.”
Demong noted that the three- to four-year age gap is likely because the next wave of athletes were the first inspired by the Olympic decision.
“We have a much deeper pipeline in U-20 and down,” he said, “so we’re working to not only accelerate the development of the U-20 women’s team, but then also continue to introduce programs and strategies to reduce attrition and keep our young women competing so that we have a full pipeline beyond that.”
In the spring of 2014, Women’s Ski Jumping USA launched Fly Girls, a feeder program to recruit, identify and foster young talent. Based in Park City, Utah, the program is for girls ages 13 to 16.
Hendrickson, a Park City native who was captivated by the sport at age 7 while watching the 2002 Olympics, has taken the Fly Girls under her wing.
“I try and spend a little bit of time coaching and connecting with them,” she said. “I hope they watched me in the Olympics, and I hope that they think it’s cool that I’m around training and jumping with them. I don’t want to be this icon that they don’t feel like they can talk to.”
Girls as young as 6 years old also have the opportunity to try ski jumping through the Youth Sports Alliance – a legacy of the 2002 Olympic Games.
Park City elementary schools let out at 12:30 p.m. every Friday so students can take part in the Get Out & Play program (1st through 5th grades) and ACTiV8 (6th through 9th grades). About 2,500 local youth each year are able to experience winter sports at the Salt Lake City Games venues, with scholarships available so that everyone can participate.
In 2014, 18 athletes from YSA’s programs competed in Sochi and earned five medals.
Emily Fisher, the YSA Executive Director, said she has seen significant growth in female participation in ski jumping “just because the girls now can actually make it all the way to the Olympic team.
“They’re excited that their neighbors, their babysitters, people in their community were some of the first pioneer Olympians, and I think that just inspired the next generation in Park City.”
Fisher said when the bell rings at 12:30, the kids get changed at school, and then YSA provides transportation to the venues, lessons and lift tickets.
She said there are about 40 to 60 kids each year who participate in Nordic jumping.
“We definitely have athletes who try it and then at the end of the day run and find their parent and say, ‘Mom, Mom can you please, please sign me up for ski jumping?’” Fisher said.
Alan Alborn, head coach of the U.S. women’s ski jumping team calls the Get Out & Play program “the best recruitment tool for ski jumping in the U.S.”
Sam Macuga, 16, started in the Get Out & Play program, became part of the inaugural Fly Girls program, and was one of the nine women competing at the U.S. Olympic Team Trials in Park City in December.
Now that they’re in the Games, Hendrickson and her fellow female ski jumpers also want to expand their opportunities for medals. Women compete only on the small or “normal” hill while men have an additional event on the large hill and a team competition.
“We knew that there would be a lot of people supporting us going into the Olympics and then kind of thought, ‘OK, we got them in, that’s all we need to do,’” Hendrickson said. “And that’s fine – we really appreciated all their work, but for me, being an advocate, I still have more work to do to push getting a large hill event and team events and even equal prize money.”
To that end, Hendrickson was elected to the international ski federation (FIS) athletes’ commission as the representative for women’s ski jumping.
“My older teammates had it definitely more difficult, and I thank them 1,000 times for all the work they did in Vancouver and just the endless years of what it took to get to Sochi,” Hendrickson said. “But I definitely still want to see it progress more. FIS has actually been very receptive to some of the comments that I’ve made and I’m really looking forward to changing some of these things for the future as women’s ski jumping continues to grow.”
There’s still one final bastion of male-only events at the Games – winter or summer – to overcome: Nordic combined, which pairs ski jumping with cross-country skiing.
“I’m happy to report that this is actually the first season of women’s Nordic combined in Continental Cup, which is the tour below world cup,” Demong said, “and there is a junior world event this year for the first time. Many of the nations are pushing very hard and there’s been a goal set to have women’s Nordic combined added to the 2022 Olympic program.
Women’s Nordic combined will be contested at the 2020 Winter Youth Olympic Games in Lausanne, Switzerland.
“Obviously there are a lot of steps along the way, but we’re about a year ahead of schedule in terms of the number of and level of competitions that will be hosted this year,” Demong said.
That means even more options for girls and women.
“Of course I want young females to get into ski jumping,” Hendrickson said, “but girls in general just need to get involved in sport because it is so life changing. It’s shaped me so much as a person.
“I used to be very shy and reserved and it’s taught me to work hard and to speak my mind and learn and grow and that’s what’s so beautiful about sport. It’s very empowering.”