It wasn’t long ago that Sarah Hendrickson was dominating her rivals in the ski jump.
Now the 19-year-old’s fiercest opponent could be time, as she attempts to return from injury for next month’s Winter Olympics.
Despite tearing the anterior cruciate ligament, medial collateral ligament and meniscus in her right knee at an August ski jumping event in Germany, Hendrickson still hopes to compete at the Sochi Games through an exhaustive rehab assignment. According to The Salt Lake Tribune, the Park City, Utah native has spent hundreds of hours at her hometown’s gym and treatment facilities at the U.S. Ski Team’s Center of Excellence.
Women’s ski jumping makes its Olympic debut at the Sochi Games, and five months ago, Hendrickson was considered a favorite to take gold at the new event. But thus far, Hendrickson hasn’t even been able to get back in the snow.
“I know it’s pushing the envelope biologically to get back for Sochi but I have an amazing team behind me,” Hendrickson said at Team USA’s “100 Days to Sochi” event in October. “This was obviously less than ideal timing for anything, but I’ve dreamt about walking into the Ceremonies way too many times to walk away now.”
There is a lot riding on Hendrickson’s return to ski jumping, and not just for herself and Team USA, but possibly the near-term future of ski jumping. Perhaps the face and ambassador of the sport, Hendrickson’s presence in Sochi would be a boon for ski jumping, particularly if she effectively overcomes her injury. A charismatic figure who is quick to flash a smile, the sport could certainly do worse than Hendrickson as their main spokesperson.
According to Hendrickson, her comeback is not just based on how her knee feels. She believes there is more to ski jumping that just being physically fit.
“You’d think it [finalizing training] would be a lot of jumping, but really, ski jumping is a mental sport,” Hendrickson said. “You just have to keep yourself positive in order to fulfill your dreams.”
The knee injury has forced Hendrickson to be a ski jumping spectator. At last month’s U.S. Olympic Trials in Park City, she watched Jessica Jerome out jump Lindsey Van to win the competition and lock up her trip to Sochi. The remaining three spots on the women’s ski jumping team will be announced Jan. 22, and Hendrickson can be included as a discretionary pick, despite the fact that she didn’t compete at the Trials.
U.S. Ski Team coach Alan Alborn has said Hendrickson deserves to be on the team, but her selection depends on whether she’s healthy enough to even be able to compete. If Hendrickson can compete, questions surrounding her effectiveness may also linger.
There are encouraging signs for Hendrickson’s prospects. Her doctor, Andrew Cooper, told ESPN that four months after surgery, Hendrickson is at a point on the recovery curve where most athletes would be at six months.
“I couldn't find a reason not to let her do it,” Dr. Cooper said. “She looks amazing -- her strength, her range of motion, her power numbers. I gave her a hug and looked her in the eye and told her to be honest with me and with her knee. She said she would.
“If anyone on the planet can do it, it’s Sarah.”
He maintained optimism for Hendrickson to recover in time for Sochi because of her age, small stature and her work ethic.
Hendrickson has posted a few updates on her Twitter account, but hasn’t said anything specific as to when exactly she plans to begin jumping again, though it is likely to be soon, if she plans on competing in Sochi.
“I wish I was jumping these hills this weekend for U.S. Olympic Trials,” Hendrickson posted on Instagram and Twitter on Dec. 28, during the U.S. Trials.
“However, it is very exciting that women's ski jumping will finally be involved and have an event in Sochi. Good luck to everyone jumping this weekend and whoever claims that spot deserves it 100%. Just a couple more weeks until I am scheduled to jump myself :)…”
On Dec. 16, she posted: “First ski jumping immolation today -- I can almost taste the ski jump I am so close.”
This isn’t the first time the phenom has undergone knee surgery. In 2012, Hendrickson was idled for six months after undergoing micro-fracture knee surgery to repair ligaments. She claims this attempt at rehabilitation has been more difficult than that one. Plus, there wasn’t the immediate worry of the Olympics being just weeks away.
Should she compete in Russia, Hendrickson could be in for an entertaining duel with Japanese teenager Sara Takanashi, who considers Hendrickson more of an “icon rather than a rival.” Takanashi, who has not suffered a major injury, has a record 15 World Cup wins, compared to 13 from Hendrickson.
If cleared to return, Hendrickson will have limited time to fully train for Sochi, as the women’s competition begins Feb. 11.
Considering her competitive spirit, Hendrickson likely has a bright future, no matter how things turn out in the coming weeks. But she doesn’t hide her eagerness to compete next month on the world stage.
Hendrickson stated that waiting for 2018 in Pyeongchang, South Korea, was "obviously not an option for me."
Nick Forrester contributed to this report.