It was uncharacteristic behavior for Sarah Hendrickson last Friday night in Italy. The Park City native was nervous very nervous. At the top of the HS106 meter hill in Predazzo, she was shaking. Her mind was racing.
She had been in this start house hundreds of times. This hill was like home. But this night was not the same. It wasn't her first World Championships, but this was different from Oslo two years ago. She felt an expectation to perform. At just 18, she knew herself well. That first jump was oh-so very important to her.
She had to nail it. And she did.
Last Friday night the second competition day at the FIS Nordic World Ski Championships in Italy the crowd watched as tiny Sarah Hendrickson took wing. On her first of two competition jumps, Sarah soared seemingly forever, milking every meter she could out of her flight. She overflew the 95-meter critical point, pushing closer and closer to her own hill record of 108.0 meters before finally touching down at 106.0.
Despite the fact that her chief rival, Sara Takanashi, had not yet jumped, and that Sarah (with an h) had one jump left to go, she pumped her hands in confidence, jumped up and down with her skis, and seemingly looked at every single spectator to show them her pride. She knew that a World Championship was, indeed, just one jump away.
It was a far cry from the scene in her mind and body just two or three minutes earlier. Like fellow teen Mikaela Shiffrin, who had won her slalom gold just one week earlier, Sarah was a nervous wreck. Her mind wasn't functioning and her body wasn't reacting. But, sliding onto the starting bar, she found her peace.
Great champions have the innate ability to block everything else out and focus on the task at hand. Sarah Hendrickson is a great champion.
Her thoughts became focused on what she would do in the next 10 seconds. But deep in her mind was the sense of peace that she knew this jump. Much of that confidence came from her coach, Paolo Bernardi, who grew up in the shadow of the Predazzo jumping complex. His father Giuseppe built the jumps. Sadly, his mother Gina passed away just weeks earlier.
Paolo is an amazing coach who instills confidence in his athletes. Sarah turned that confidence into gold.
Sarah Hendrickson and Sara Takanashi are among a new generation for women's ski jumping. And while their battle for gold was the primary storyline in the third FIS World Championship for women, it was more broadly illustrative of the dramatic steps women's ski jumping has made in the last five years. Robbed of a showcase in foggy Oslo two years ago when you simply couldn't see the jumpers, this time the world watched in wonder.
In 2007, when the International Olympic Committee turned down an initial request for Olympic inclusion, it said simply, "Continue to grow your sport athletically." Amid all the rhetoric and angst that followed, the athletes spoke most loudly with their performances on the jumps. They were robbed of that chance in Oslo two years ago when fog kept the cameras and spectators from seeing the girls in action. But in Val di Fiemme, it was a showcase.
Two years ago, only three women cracked the 200-point mark. In Val di Fiemme, it jumped to 15. Friday night's competition was an amazing show of athleticism and dramatically profiled the current state of the sport.
While it was Sarah Hendrickson collecting the gold medal last weekend, it was her sport of women's ski jumping that was the big winner. Look for an exciting show next year in Sochi.
One of the most experienced communications professionals in skiing, Tom Kelly is a veteran of eight Olympics and serves as vice president, Communications, for the Park City-based U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association. A Wisconsin native, he and his wife Carole Duh have lived in Park City since 1988 when he's not traveling the world with the team.