Sarah Hendrickson takes time to relax this winter
Less than six months after tearing the ACL in her right knee during a training jump in Germany, ski jumper Sarah Hendrickson stood atop the hill in Sochi, ready to make history.
Only 19 years old in February 2014, Hendrickson was the first woman ever to jump in the Olympics, part of a group of women who fought for years to be included in Olympic competition.
Fast forward to December 2015. Hendrickson, the 2013 world champion, currently sports a red, white and blue brace on her right knee. After reinjuring her ACL in June, she’s had two more surgeries on her right knee. She’ll miss the entire 2015-16 World Cup season and is targeting the 2016-17 season for her return to competition.
Though she jumped in the 2014-15 World Cup season the year after Sochi, her results weren’t what she’d been accustomed to. Whether or not that was due to her rush to get ready for Sochi is up for debate but, when discussing the 2014 Olympics, Hendrickson said she’d do it all over again. Nothing was going to stop her from being part of history.
"It was just what I needed to do, basically," she said. "Some people may roll their eyes and say ‘Oh, that was stupid,’ or whatever, but it’s just, when you’re a high-level athlete, you have to push some things aside and just do what you want to do."
Playing through the pain
Sports fans often revere athletes who play and perform at high levels when they have no business doing so. Take, for example, Michael Jordan in the 1997 NBA Finals. In Game 5 against the Utah Jazz, Jordan, physically ill from the flu, scored 38 points to lead the Chicago Bulls to victory.
The year before, Kerri Strug, a Team USA gymnast, won a gold medal in the vault competition at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, sticking the landing despite spraining her ankle on her first attempt.
Those images live on in sports lore — Jordan collapsing into teammate Scottie Pippen’s arms and Strug’s coach carrying her to the podium, her injured ankle heavily bandaged.
Hendrickson didn’t have that iconic moment in Sochi — she finished 21st out of 30 jumpers — but her lightning-fast recovery from ACL surgery was no less impressive. During the six months of rehab leading up to the competition, she never wavered in her determination to make it to Russia.
"It was just that I wanted to go to the Olympics and I didn’t care what I had to do," she said. "I woke up every single morning of that rehab just dreaming of walking into the opening ceremonies. It was great. I would never take that away. It sucks right now, but I got to be the first girl [to jump] in the Olympics."
Race to recover
Hendrickson’s coach, Alan Alborn, said she defied everyone’s expectations during her first ACL rehab. But, he added, the decision to allow her to jump in Sochi was made by a team of professionals who were confident she could handle it.
"Had there been any major red flags during the timeframe when she was coming back, we would have re-evaluated and had a different plan," he said. "Sarah, throughout my time with her, has proven myself and several professionals wrong in different scenarios when it comes to rehabilitations and what we thought was possible for her."
Hendrickson’s ACL was repaired with a hamstring graft during the initial surgery in 2013. Though it didn’t work out in the long run, Alborn said it was the right decision to make at the time.
"She didn’t push it too hard," he said. "I think, for whatever reason, the ACL she had put back in the knee coming into Sochi just wasn’t right for her body. The idea was great in theory, but everybody’s body is different."
When the Sochi Games were over and Hendrickson moved on to the next World Cup season, she grew frustrated as she struggled to regain her 2013 form.
"People just kept telling me, ‘Time, time, time,’" she said. "There were a couple months in there where it finally seemed like it was OK, but honestly, I don’t think it ever really grew to my body. It just didn’t work. It was like, ‘OK, I should be on top again. What’s happening?’"
A major setback
In June 2015, Hendrickson was training for the 2015-16 World Cup season when she began experiencing discomfort in her right knee again. After taking a couple of months off, she returned to jumping, but the pain persisted. An MRI revealed a torn ACL, forcing Hendrickson back under the knife and back into physical therapy.
Her second surgery this year took place on Nov. 22. As she navigates the rehabilitation process yet again, her plan has changed.
"I was in the gym for like six hours a day up until the Olympics doing everything I possibly could," she said. "This time, I’m so much more relaxed. I’m still working out every day, but I can sit on the couch if my knee is killing me. Last time, that wasn’t an option. I have a new outlook on this one — I’m not rushing back to compete. I’m a lot more relaxed and just kind of taking a mental break this winter, too."
Alborn said Hendrickson’s mental break may lead to a renewed passion for the sport when she is able to return.
"For more than just ACL reasons, Sarah needs to recharge her batteries," he said. "It’s good for her to be home and slow herself down in all things for a little bit. In my mind, that will give her the sustainable energy and drive to take her through [the 2018] Korea [Olympics]."
The road to Korea
Hendrickson’s sights are firmly set on the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea. Though she’s happy to have been the first woman to jump in an Olympic competition in Sochi, she wants to be remembered for more.
"I don’t want that title," she said. "I want a gold-medal title."
Alborn said he wouldn’t bet against Hendrickson finding her way to the top of the Olympic podium in 2018.
"She doesn’t want just any medal," he said. "She wants to win. If that’s really what she wants and she can be healthy, there’s not a lot that’s going to stand in her way."
Hendrickson’s experience in Sochi will help her better prepare for 2018, Alborn added.
"Had she not hurt her knee, I’m 100 percent confident she would have walked away from that event with a medal," he said. "But being part of the experience and competing at the level she did was a huge bonus for her — she really needed that."
Now, Alborn said, the focus is to slowly work Hendrickson back to 2013 form. Then, he added, he’s excited to see how much she can progress during the 2017 World Cup season.
"She wants to come back and come back better than she was," he said. "I’m confident that’s a realistic possibility for her. If I were her competitor and I knew she was coming back next year, I’d be very concerned."
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