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Friday, January 4, 2013
Sarah Hendrickson picking up where she left off

By Bonnie D. Ford

Ski jumper Sarah Hendrickson outwitted gravity on such a consistent basis last season that it only makes sense she might be able to defy a few other laws of sporting physics as well.

Like the rule of thumb that says a young athlete will struggle with confidence after a significant surgery and layoff.

Or the unspoken expectation that a slump is inevitable after a string of great performances.

Or the conventional wisdom that it would be too much to ask of an 18-year-old to perform well and be thrust into the role of standard-bearer for a brand-new women's Olympic event.

Hendrickson, grounded by knee repairs and rehab for five months in the middle of the year, appears to be picking up where she left off after winning nine of 13 events and the overall title on the inaugural women's ski jumping World Cup circuit in 2011-12.

She finished second in the World Cup opener in Lillehammer, Norway last month, then won last weekend in driving rain and wind in Sochi, Russia. On that same hill in February 2014, history will be made when women's ski jumping debuts in the Winter Games after years of legal and bureaucratic wrangling.

More girls than ever are playing sports now and I'm a part of that really awesome movement. My friends and I are super proud to be athletes because we're strong, healthy and we want to be the best. So, to me, beauty is about confidence and having fun in your sport.

-- Sarah Hendrickson

Under construction and almost devoid of people other than laborers, the Olympic complex in the mountains above the Black Sea resort felt a bit "eerie" in the gloomy weather, Hendrickson said. It was an apt metaphor for the way she feels about this young season -- a work in progress. Holes were drilled into her left femur just above the knee to replace missing cartilage in April, and even after tedious and extensive work to strengthen it this past summer, it's still painful at times.

Then there's the mental challenge of going into every competition as the jumper to beat.

"Going into the first competition in Norway, I felt a lot of pressure, not from anyone specific or the media," Hendrickson said. "People assume I can do it again, and it's not really realistic to do it again. It's hard to live up to those expectations people have of you.

"Once I put my skis on, I take a deep breath and I'm in my element. I'm there because I love ski jumping, and I can't let anybody change that."

That declarative statement is typical of Hendrickson, who is matter-of-fact about the daily task of conquering what she calls "a huge mental game" that goes with being a favorite.

Alan Alborn, the three-time Olympian who is head program and development coach for the Park City, Utah-based team, first saw Hendrickson jump as a 10- or 11-year-old with talent as visible as the tightly braided pigtails flying out from beneath her helmet. He said she has the same kind of control over her psychological approach as she does over her 5-foot-3 frame in mid-flight.

"She makes it look like she doesn't have a hard time with anything," said Alborn, who also coached Hendrickson's older brother, Nick, a member of the U.S. Nordic Combined B team, and said he exudes the same aura. "There's rarely an error. And she trains as well off the hill as on the hill, because she thinks about ski jumping so much. My sense is that she can imagine herself very vividly and accurately."

That discipline also applied when Hendrickson was forced to stay earthbound this past summer. She was diagnosed with the knee injury in the fall of 2011 but chose to compete with it last season and have surgery last spring to give herself enough time to recover and peak again before the Olympics.

Alborn said she displayed unusual patience in rehab, toiling hard in the gym to rebuild her strength but resisting the temptation to push beyond the limitations physical therapists set for her. Any restlessness was mitigated by the fact that she had to focus on finishing up her senior year at the Winter Sports School in Park City, which has a special reverse calendar for elite snow-and-ice athletes like Hendrickson. She graduated on Nov. 16, two days before leaving for Norway.

"Travel is a joy now because I don't have to be constantly thinking about school," Hendrickson said. "It's a huge burden lifted off my shoulders."

Alborn and head World Cup coach Paolo Bernardi tried to relieve any potential stress by telling Hendrickson not to ask too much of herself until she was back at full strength, which she isn't yet. But Hendrickson found her way back to the podium anyway. Her landings in the first of back-to-back events in Sochi gave her a win but cost her the next day on the same hill when, stiff and sore, she finished seventh. On the plus side, she was one of three U.S. jumpers who finished in the top nine.

"I was still really happy, even though some people look at that as not a good result for me," Hendrickson said. "It's still a top 10 in a World Cup, and it was reassuring to know I could do that even when I wasn't having a good day." By the end of the season, she hopes to be in form to do well in the World Championships, where she has "competed poorly," in her own words, in two previous appearances -- the first at age 14.

Bernardi said this season will almost certainly have more bumps than the last. "It's a problem some days when the knee is bugging her," he said. "She's a little bit more on the defensive side, but the defensive side of Sarah is a very high level."

The other, less tangible challenge for Hendrickson is her sudden ascent to pre-eminence as the youngest member of the team. She attracted a glitzy sponsor in Red Bull and is facing an exponential increase in media attention and requests.

"She's the first one to say she doesn't want to be in the spotlight, and she's tried to handle it the best way she can," Bernardi said. "For the other [jumpers], it's like the small sister who grew up with you is a worldwide star. The male ski jumpers and coaches admire the way she jumps.

"This dynamic will help her prepare for a long career, and it will help her teammates be better. She'll bring more young girls into jumping. It's rough sometimes, but it's the kind of rough you want to have on your team."