Olympic ski jumper Sarah Hendrickson reflects on trailblazing career, retirement

Brendan Farrell
The Park Record

Sarah Hendrickson lifts her skis into the air as she celebrates placing first among the women ski jumpers at the U.S. Olympic Team Ski Jumping Trials at the Utah Olympic Park in 2017. Hendrickson announced her retirement from the sport in March.
Park Record file photo

PARK CITY, Utah — In a career hampered by injury, ski jumper Sarah Hendrickson reached her breaking point when she suffered a back injury in July 2019.

“It was kind of the final straw that broke the camel’s back if you will — literally,” Hendrickson said.

The Park City native needed surgery again, and that’s when she knew it was time to retire. She officially announced her retirement in March, but she hadn’t competed since September 2019.

Since she stopped competing, Hendrickson has been busy hitting the books. Hendrickson, a Winter Sports School graduate, decided to attend a community college in Colorado — she’s long dated Roaring Fork Valley native and fellow Olympian Torin Yater-Wallace — and earned her associate’s degree. Her extensive injury history during her ski jumping career opened her eyes to the idea of being a nurse, and she wants to apply for nursing school.

“My exposure to the medical field was just very apparent when I was dealing with my injuries — I had six knee injuries and then my back surgery,” Hendrickson said. “Obviously, (I) met some incredible doctors along the way that made such a big difference for me and then of course incredible nurses that made such a big impact when I was in recovery.”

Before all of the injuries, Hendrickson was on top of the women’s ski jumping world. She won a staggering nine of the 13 events on the 2011-12 World Cup slate, the inaugural year of the women’s competition, and finished first overall. Hendrickson finished the 2012-13 season second overall on the World Cup tour with four victories and then captured the 2013 women’s ski jumping world championship.

“When I started as a ski jumper, I had never had a dream of going to (the) World Cup, I never had a dream of becoming an Olympian because it was not an option for me,” she said. “And so then when it started to become a reality when we heard that things like this were going to be added to our sport, it was just super exciting and it was kind of like, ‘OK, is this what I want to do as a sport?’ I never even thought it would become a career.”

Heading into the 2014 games, Hendrickson was one of the favorites to win a medal. And then like a house of cards, it all came crashing down. She injured her knee in August and required surgery just six months before the opening ceremony. Through grit and sheer determination, Hendrickson successfully rehabbed in time to make the team going to Sochi. But it was clear she wasn’t the same jumper who was dominating the women’s scene just a year earlier.

Hendrickson finished 21st out of 30 jumpers in Sochi, well off her gold medal ambitions. Despite three more surgeries on the same knee between 2014 and 2018, she made the Olympic team again for the 2018 games in Pyeongchang, finishing 19th. To this day, the impact of falling short of an Olympic gold medal still haunts her.

“It was just like getting back up again and getting knocked down again and an 18-month rehab and just really, really testing every type of strength that I had mentally, physically, emotionally,” Hendrickson said. “It was really, really hard, and each time I never thought about quitting because it just wasn’t in me, it didn’t feel like the right time.

“But it was, you know, there were a lot of tears, a lot of stints of depressive times where I was just trying to grind through the training and get back to where I wanted to be at, but it was really difficult.”

The 2014 games did have one bright spot for Hendrickson: Becoming the first woman to ski jump at the Olympics. It still didn’t take away the sting of what could have been, however.

“That was awesome, that’s been, I guess, an amazing accomplishment,” Hendrickson said. “They say like once you won, you always look toward winning again. And after that crash, I never really got there, and that’s just been something that was hard to sit with.”

But that pain and anguish that was left over from her ski jumping career has given her a boost as she hopes to go through medical school. Hendrickson isn’t sure what exactly she wants to do yet, but that’s what school’s for.

“My dream is to be in orthopedic — who knows if that will come to be after I go through school and rotations and stuff like that,” she said. “But because of that firsthand experience of pain and hardship and all that, it’s something that I think we can all relate to, and that’s invaluable when it comes to patient and doctor or nurse relationships.”