Behind the Gold: Sarah Hendrickson punches her ticket to Pyeongchang

Tom Kelly
Behind the Gold

Sarah Hendrickson stood at the top of the 134 meter ski jump at Holmenkollen, the city of Oslo in the distance. Japan’s Sara Takanashi had just flown 133.5 meters to take the lead. Only Hendrickson, the first jump leader, remained. She took a deep breath and pushed off the bar. Soon, she was in flight – floating down the hill before touching down in a perfect telemark landing. She pumped her first into the air, a big smile crossing her face as her teammates and friends Lindsey, Jessica, Allisa and Abby came running to greet her.

It was a joyous day – March 17, 2013. This past Sunday, that same smile came back to Sarah Hendrickson’s face, this time mixed with tears. The same friends and teammates who cheered her at Holmenkollen were there at the Utah Olympic Park to share those tears and cheer her to win once again. More than a group of friends, these girls were pioneers who had helped shepherd their sport to its Olympic debut in Sochi.

It took 1,750 days for Sarah to find that feeling again – to simply smile about the sport she loved so much. To pump her fist into the air. To put her head in her hands and cry. To triumphantly hold her skis above her head to celebrate a victory.

Sarah Hendrickson was a winner once again. This time there was no discretionary choice to make the Olympic Team. She earned it in a hotly contested Olympic Trials that featured five women who all had a pretty equal shot at the win. She would be an Olympian again.

“My goal was to have fun and smile today,” said an emotional Hendrickson. “When I got up today that was what I set my mind on. I love ski jumping and that’s why we’re all out here.”

Over the span of four and a half years, that love was severely tested. Hendrickson’s August 2013 training crash in Germany led to countless surgeries, each one seemingly leading to another. It resulted in three separate comebacks to the sport, each filled with optimism. Each resulting in dashed hopes. Each followed by periods of perseverance that only a world class athlete can muster.

This time it was different.

Atop the 98 meter hill at the UOP her mind raced back to that time as a five-year-old when she walked up to watch the Olympic ski jumping competition, later convincing her parents she should be able to jump like her older brother Nick.

All Sarah ever wanted to do was to fly.

She thought for a moment about her objective of the day – to just have fun and enjoy the moment. This was a chance she might not have again – to put on a show for the 7,000 fans in the stadium. She didn’t think about the aches and pains or things she might have done differently. She put fear of pain out of her mind. When you show up on competition day, you have to leave that behind.

Amid the thousands of tense fans was her mother Nancy and her father Bill. There were friends and fans from Park City whose hearts had been aching with hers over the last four years as she pursued her relentless series of comebacks.

When she nailed her landing on that final jump, the crowd breathed a collective sigh of relief. For Sarah, the world stood still. She sought a moment of solitude in the finish amidst the deafening cheers, holding her head in her hands as tears poured out of her eyes. She looked to the sky, thrusting her skis upward to the heavens. This was what she loved. This was what she had so sorely missed.

“It’s pretty emotional because the last four years has been so tough,” she said. “This gives me confidence that hard work pays off. If you keep working towards your dream you’ll get there. That is something that will stick with me for the rest of my life. It’s a really good lesson to hold with you.”

Sarah Hendrickson is going to Pyeongchang!