History in the making at Olympic trials
Three U.S. athletes in the sports of ski jumping and Nordic combined will punch their tickets to the Sochi Winter Games this weekend, and one of them will be a forerunner to history.
The woman who collects first place in Sunday's Olympic trials books an automatic slot in the field of 30 for the inaugural women's ski jumping competition in February. And this intramural competition has even more significance since world champion Sarah Hendrickson -- a lock for the U.S. team if she successfully completes rehab from major surgery performed on her right knee in August -- is still a spectator at this point. The U.S. is only guaranteed three slots in Sochi.
Seven women and seven men met the criteria for ski jumping trials by scoring points in year-round international competition since July 2012. Veterans Jessica Jerome and Lindsey Van, both of whom had top-10 finishes in the most recent World Cup events in Germany, will be the favorites to clinch an automatic berth for the women.
Head coach Alan Alborn said he expects an intense atmosphere among the members of one of the top women's programs in the world as they push off from the top of the inrun ramp at Utah Olympic Park.
"It's not a huge number, but it's a high standard," he said.
Joining Jerome, 26, and former world champion Van, 29, on the hill Sunday will be seasoned jumpers Alissa Johnson, 26, and Abby Hughes, 24, who like Van and Jerome learned the sport in their hometown of Park City. Two newcomers to the national team resident program this season, 19-year-old Nina Lussi and 21-year-old Nita Englund, also will compete, along with 18-year-old developmental jumper Emilee Anderson.
Hendrickson is slightly ahead of schedule in her recovery and should resume jumping next month, although it's unclear whether she will be in shape in time to compete in World Cups prior to Sochi. That is somewhat immaterial to Alborn, who said Hendrickson will be a discretionary selection to the team if he judges her strength and form are where they should be in training.
She's been working doggedly in the gym but still needs to abide by the team's "return-to-snow protocol" and initially will be sent to the bunny hill where kids learn to ski simply to feel snow underfoot again.
Even if Hendrickson is not "firing on all cylinders," Alborn said, "it comes down to the reality that half of Sarah's level is better than most of our team. That should push other athletes in the right way." He said Hendrickson's impatience to get back to jumping is palpable but described her attitude as "positive and realistic." In her absence, Japan's Sara Takanashi has dominated the early season World Cups.
Sunday's winner will get a little breathing room in what is shaping up to be a stressful few weeks for the U.S. team leading into Sochi.
Alborn said the team will skip the next scheduled World Cup event Jan. 3-4 in Russia to focus on the two after that, both in Japan on successive weekends. Results from those competitions will determine whether the U.S. will send three or four jumpers to the Olympics. The team is currently on the bubble based on points earned over the last 17 months.
"It's a struggle, but at the end of the day our goal is to send the strongest team we can and not focus on how many slots we have," Alborn said.
Keeping the team home the week after trials is the wise course both competitively and financially, he said. The women's team has been operating on an extremely tight budget in a season when travel costs have been exorbitant, additional sponsors have been hard to come by and athletes like Hughes and Johnson have had to resort to crowdfunding campaigns to cover costs.
Lussi, a native of Lake Placid, N.Y., and the great-granddaughter of legendary figure skating coach Gus Lussi, committed to the Park City-based national team program this season after spending her last two years of high school in boarding school in Austria.
"She hasn't scored points on the World Cup circuit yet, but I've seen a lot of positive change in her strength and fitness level -- now it's a matter of working on the ski jumping side," Alborn said.
"Realistically, I'm not in it to win it," Lussi said. "So I guess that does take a bit of the pressure off. I think it'll be a great building block."
Ten men are expected to start Saturday in the U.S. Nordic combined trials, including defending Olympic individual gold medalist Billy Demong, five-time Olympian Todd Lodwick, and the ascending Fletcher brothers, Bryan -- a survivor of childhood leukemia -- and Taylor.
Sunday's men's ski jumping field counts three previous U.S. Olympic team members.