BEHIND THE GOLD
November 8, 2016
Step by step, Sarah Hendrickson crawled her way up the towering 134-meter Olympic ski jump – lungs burning, every muscle aching. It was ironic. Here was a world champion ski jumper not soaring quietly through the air, but rather punishing her body in September's Red Bull 400 by climbing up the ski hill.
Amidst the pain, her mind fast forwarded to her return to ski jumping, just weeks away.
"The Red Bull 400 was a blast," said Hendrickson. "It was a really good test for my knee. I have always had an endurance itch side so it's really fun for me to do sponsor races like this every once in a while – definitely a new angle of the ski jump. But let's say I like flying down it a lot more."
As she powered her way to the top of the jump, maybe just for a fleeting moment her thoughts went back to that day in summer 2013 when her world changed after a training crash in Germany.
"I feel like the last four years has been more or less recovery," said Hendrickson. "I haven't gotten a chance to do what I do in a long time, and that is really frustrating. Looking back to when I won all those World Cups and the World Championship, I hadn't battled any injuries and I just want to be able to stay healthy again."
For much of the last few seasons, Hendrickson's time has been spent at the USSA Center of Excellence – sweating and toiling every day, a smile on her face and a look of determination in her eyes.
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"For me, staying motivated comes from the roots," she said. "Why did I start the sport? What do I love about it? I had some really hard days his time around and, no doubt, quitting came up on a daily basis. But something inside me kept me going."
Hendrickson, now 22, has packed a lot into her short career – 13 World Cup wins, a World Cup season title and the 2013 World Championship. Still, she's far from finished.
"I feel like I have more to accomplish in this sport and I couldn't walk away happy right now," she said. "Every day I grew stronger, either mentally or physically – those are the things I love to see. I have learned so much about myself when getting hurt and although frustrating, it will help me later in life.
"But I want to fly again."
In mid-October, she took to wing once more, heading to Slovenia where the lower elevation air would give her more of a cushion to test her knew. And she sought the solitude of Planica, to escape attention as she made her first tentative jumps.
"It was a huge mental game for me," she exclaimed. "There was a small part of me that actually thought I might never ski jump again. I was scared like I have never been scared before."
Hendrickson had actually been cleared to jump three months earlier. But she wanted more time. "I had, and still have, a lot of trust issues I had to overcome with this injury."
It started out rough – it just takes time to get the knee accustomed to the new forces. Finally, she started to feel good.
"I'm really satisfied," she said. "Technically my jumps were some of the best ever."
After Planica, she headed to Germany to exorcise some demons on the big hill at Oberstdorf – where the injury trail began in August, 2013. Now, she's home and getting ready once again to join the tour when it opens in Lillehammer, Norway this December.
On the World Cup tour, she'll see some news faces as well as a familiar nemesis in Japan's Sara Takanashi.
"Women's ski jumping is growing a lot," said Hendrickson. "Sara is still really good and very hard to beat. I will try to focus on myself and go from there. I have a new weapon on my mental side these days – few people have gone through what I have gone through and that can help me on the hill for those high pressure days."
It's a World Championship season and less than 15 months to the 2018 Olympics in PyeongChang. Her goals will come in time, but expect them to be nothing less than winning. But she also knows she was away from the jump hill for 18 months. This will be a building season.
Still, she knows her ability and what she can still accomplish, as well as having a secret weapon in her quiver.
"I am here because of my passion for ski jumping. And that can get you really far."