You don’t become a world champion without perseverance. It takes years to perfect your craft and fine-tune your body and mind — only to see it come crashing apart when you least expect it.
Last month in the damp chill of a Swedish evening at the Lugnet jumping complex in Falun, Sweden, Sarah Hendrickson found herself pumping her fist in the air in jubilation once again. The wide smile beneath her Red Bull helmet as she cruised effortlessly to a stop in the outrun told the story. That was the one she was waiting for: 98.5 meters for the longest ride of the day and just about down to the bottom of the HS100-meter hill.
It was a pretty ride to watch. She carried decent speed of around 85 kilometers per hour down the in-run, timing her jump perfectly. Like surfers, ski jumpers live to catch that perfect wave. Only in ski jumping, it’s a wave of air. Sarah caught it, stretching her jump down, down, down the hill and almost touching the bottom red marker, long past the bright yellow target line, to take the lead.
There were no medals for Sarah Hendrickson that evening or the U.S. team in the mixed team event. She didn’t get to parade jubilantly with the American flag, hoisted onto the shoulders of her teammates. There was no press conference, no flash of camera lights.
But it didn’t matter. She was back! And the golden feeling in her heart was every bit as valuable as the gold she won two years earlier in Italy.
Every day for the last 18 months, Sarah has re-lived that warm day in August 2013 in Oberstdorf, Germany, when, in a training leap, she outflew the big hill by about 20 meters. It was a jump that would change her life as she came crashing to a stop in the outrun, coach Paulo Bernardi running to her aid.
That started a new chapter in her life. Hendrickson literally moved into the USSA Center of Excellence, putting in hundreds and hundreds of hours — lifting weights, riding the bike, gingerly building strength in her knee for Sochi. Medals were out of the question. But she wanted to jump. And she did.
Then, it was time to do it all over again. Her next eight months were filled with more of the same — surgery again, building strength, preparing herself mentally for yet another comeback.
There was little fanfare for her return in October at the Continental Cup in Trondheim for a pair of second place finishes. Optimism.
As the season progressed to snow, soon she was cracking into the top-10 on the World Cup. Then came the swirling winds of Zao, Japan, where she finished an uncharacteristic 34th. A week later, she returned for the first time to Oberstdorf, albeit it on the smaller hill. Saturday was OK, but Sunday spelled disaster, as she failed to qualify for the second jump.
As January came to a close and the Falun 2015 World Championships loomed ahead, she had lost the touch. Somewhat like Lindsey Vonn, her knee was still a challenge. Mentally, it was hard to focus.
Two podiums in Slovenia a week before Falun buoyed her confidence. A day before she defended her medal, she pointed proudly to the World Ski Champion bib she was presented as defending titlist. She soared for the podium that night, but fell short in sixth. Two days later, she came back again to lead both rounds in the mixed team event.
Sarah Hendrickson will always be a World Ski Champion. And it’s likely she’ll win another. She packs a lot of punch into her tiny frame. As she walks around the jumping stadium she commands respect as a leader of her sport. Media welcome her. Athletes from other nations look up to her. And she’s not afraid to speak her mind about the future of her sport.
“Let us fly,” she says often. “Give us the speed to let us put on a show.”
As she left the venue for the final time Sunday, she carried with her the confidence of knowing that she had put down two unbeatable jumps. Her thoughts quickly turned to Lahti for 2017 Worlds and PyeongChang 2018 for the Olympic gold that eludes her.
Most of all, she left knowing what it felt like again to catch that wave.