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 throughout her 2018 Olympic journey.
Pressure. Expectations. Doubt. Fear. No matter how many sports psychology sessions you go through in your time, nothing can prepare you for the emotions you feel the day of your Olympic event. The years of preparation – whether it is four, eight or even a decade to be in that position – can take a toll on you mentally. I think the general public does not credit the grit and determination it takes to be an Olympic athlete. The expectations that, specifically, the American public puts on fellow athletes is intense. We all are motivated by the dreams of winning an Olympic medal but the reality is most don’t. As hard as that is to swallow, it is the reality that we have to accept even before the Games begin.
When people asked my goals for PyeongChang, I actually did not want to say them out loud. I felt ashamed that my goal was to be top 30. I could feel that people would roll their eyes if they thought I was striving for anything but gold. How could you ever go to the Olympics and not think about winning? And that was a hard transition for myself.
As someone who has won in their sport before, it has taken years to accept that sometimes your dream of winning is not in the books. That is the reason I had to adapt my goal and make it realistic according to circumstances. No, it is not a sense of giving up or quitting, although I feel a sense of judgment from outsiders. The way I see it, if you go into an event ranked 40th in the world, why all of a sudden do you see yourself able to win. Impossible? Never. But realistic? Hardly. I changed my goal to protect myself. At some point you have to recognize that you have worked too hard to walk away disappointed, specifically if you put an unreasonable result next to your name.
So there I was, walking into the Opening Ceremony of my second Olympics surrounded by the best athletes in the world. I had prepared the best I could, hindered by the knee pain I had now endured for over five years. Beyond frustrated that I could not be the athlete that I wanted to be, held back from pain and surgical recoveries. But there I was, taking it in as best I could. After winning Olympic Trials, securing my spot on the team, I was appreciative to have this opportunity for the second time.
The day after Opening Ceremony, I started to feel sick and tried to play it off as just a cold and stress rundown. As a couple days passed, I felt worse and worse and was eventually diagnosed with strep throat. It was the first time I would take antibiotics for an illness in about 10 years. The realization that you prepare in every way possible for years and years and then come down with a sickness one day before your event is heartbreaking. But again, that’s reality.
On the day of my event, my body, throat, head and ears were pressurized with pain. It was the worst I had felt in a long time getting ready to jump. At the top of the hill, the wind ripped through our suits, clashed again the wind nets on the side of hill, canceling out any voices trying to be heard at the starting gates. It was the moment you think about over and over but only realizing that it would not end the way you dreamed of.
I finished 19th with mediocre yet consistent jumps. My first jump, timing was late by one tenth of a second, blaming it on my lack of balance with plugged ears. My second better, but unlucky with wind. I came to the bottom with a smile on my face. I had done the best I could and there was nothing more to do.
The worst part about my average day and result was the expectation that I would be upset. Again, the expectation that since it was the Olympic Games you were supposed to, all of a sudden, fly to the top. The fact is that I was not mad. The jumps I had were the reality of what I have been dealing with for the past year. It was not a gold medal ending like you think about every morning you wake up to motivate yourself to train, but as sports so graciously has taught me, you accept the challenge and move on. It was an honor to compete in PyeongChang 2018 as I am proud to represent my hard work and my country. Thank you to everyone involved in my long road over the years.