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Out of thin air

The youngest nordic athlete ever named to the U.S. Ski Team and the first American ski jumper to medal at the Junior World Championship, Sarah Hendrickson has already made her share of history.

Now just 16, the Treasure Mountain ninth grader will launch herself toward an even more inspiring milestone: becoming the inaugural women’s Olympic ski jumping champion.

"I knew from the time she was 7 or 8, she would be one of the best in the world," said reigning world champion and longtime Hendrickson mentor Lindsey Van. "She had more drive and determination than other kids her age. I hadn’t seen a kid who knew what they wanted to do and where they wanted to go as much as Sarah."

Much has yet to fall in place – women’s ski jumping is not currently a part of the Olympic program – but Hendrickson is on course to land among the top contenders for gold if the sport is featured at the 2014 Games in Sochi, Russia.

Following a succession of strong results against the sport’s elite competitors in 2009-10, she was named the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association’s Ski Jumping Athlete of the Year at the USSA Chairman’s Awards Dinner at the Yarrow Resort on Friday, May 14.

"I am not sure what clicked this year," Hendrickson said. "I just took each competition one at a time and had fun with it."

Ski jumping has come easily for Hendrickson since she was just a tyke, and she’s had no shortage of good advice along the way. With Van, Abby Hughes, Alissa Johnson, Jessica Jerome and other U.S. teammates living and training in Park City, she grew up surrounded by most of the country’s top women’s jumpers.

"(The proximity) is really nice," Hendrickson said. "If we just hold a local competition, it’s still pretty intense."

Hendrickson first strapped on skis at Park City Mountain Resort as a 2-year-old and began jumping at age 7. She was drawn to the jumps by family – her father was a competitive jumper and her brother Nick competes in nordic combined events on the World Cup circuit – and she began training under Van’s watch at Utah Olympic Park in 2004.

For those harboring concerns about a small girl flying through the air for the length of more than two football fields, rest assured: Ski jumping is surprisingly low-risk, compared to other snow-sport disciplines. Athletes soar close to the ground, and there are no obstacles for them to collide with except the snow itself. Also, Hendrickson points out, "you start small."

"When you first go off a bigger jump, it’s kind of scary, but you get used to it," she said. She was 12 when she first flew from the 90-meter jump at Utah Olympic Park.

People often don’t realize how far ski jumpers fly, she said, and women can go nearly as far as the top men. Van held the record for one of the jumps in Vancouver until a handful of male athletes surpassed her at the 2010 Games.

"It just feels like anything is possible," Hendrickson said of jumping. "It’s kind of indescribable."

In addition to taking bronze at the 2010 Junior World Championships in Hinterzarten, Germany, Hendrickson scored 15 top-10s and three podium finishes on the Continental Cup – the top rung of competition in women’s ski jumping. Nineteenth the year before as a 14-year-old (in which she was second at the U.S. Ski Jumping Championships), Hendrickson ended sixth in last year’s overall season standings.

"She’s had a few phenomenal performances," Van said. "There are not many people her age in the world – maybe one other girl – who can do what she can do."

Van said that Hendrickson has a very high vertical leap for her age and is also exceptional in her other pursuits, which include alpine and telemark skiing, soccer, unicycle riding and biking.

For only the second time ever, the world’s best women’s jumpers are invited to the 2011 FIS Nordic World Ski Championships in Oslo, Norway, at the end of February, giving Van a chance to defend her 2009 crown while Hendrickson tries to improve on 29th in Liberec, Czech Republic.

The event will also serve as a showcase for a sport embroiled in a decade-long battle for inclusion with the International Olympic Committee (IOC). Ski jumping is the only event in the Summer and Winter Games that is solely participated in by men (with nordic combined – which involves ski jumping).

In 2009, shortly after the team lost an appeal with the Canadian government, USSA cited a difficult economy for discontinuing its financial and administrative support of the women’s team – and later the men’s team, as well.

If women’s jumping is on the slate for 2014 in Sochi, it is possible the team will again receive support from USSA – as the U.S. will almost surely be in contention for medals. If the IOC again denies the sport’s bid, the U.S. women’s team has said it might be forced to dissolve.

Hendrickson said she watched the Vancouver saga with hope, and then dismay.

"I wasn’t up there with the girls, but I was following it," Hendrickson said. "We put all that effort into it, so it was sad when it didn’t work out. I think we’re going to get in next time."

If that happens, Hendrickson will be 19 with more than five years of international experience. In other words, she’s a good bet.

"Keep your eye on that little girl," Van said. "She’s going to keep kicking butt and taking names."

U.S. Team fundraiser

The U.S. Women’s Ski Jumping Team will hold its second annual fundraiser July 14 at the Ski Magazine Dream Home in the Deer Crest community at Deer Valley Resort. The "Join the Journey Benefit" begins at 6 p.m. and lasts until 10 p.m. Vancouver 2010 Olympians and past Olympians will join the women’s team for entertainment, gourmet food, drinks and a silent and live auction. Cost is $200, and tickets can be purchased at http://www.wsjusa.com.


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