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Utah's Sarah Hendrickson soaring toward World Cup ski jumping title

Published February 22, 2012 9:05 am

Ski jumping • Park City 17-year-old closes in on inaugural women's crown.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

It was probably inevitable that Sarah Hendrickson would become a ski jumper.

Her father was a ski jumper in high school back in New Hampshire. Her mother was a cross-country and downhill ski racer who still runs ultra-marathons. And perhaps most of all, her older brother was involved in the sport. So it did not take many trips to watch Nick Hendrickson jump in Park City before Bill and Nancy Hendrickson's only daughter — on skis at the age of 2 — saw fit to declare her intentions.

"I want to do that," she told them.

Of course, nobody could have guessed at the time how that would turn out.

Now 17 years old, Hendrickson has become arguably the best female ski jumper in the world — a star of the highest order in the Euro-centric world of her sport — so popular that she was recognized in an Italian cafe recently and had to change the way she communicates with eager fans to maintain her privacy and safety.

"People are so amazed by her, she's just jumping like a maniac," said Whitney Childers, a spokeswoman for Women's Ski Jumping USA, the advocacy group sponsored by Visa that supports the women jumpers. "Ski jumping over there is kind of like football over here."

Which makes Hendrickson kind of like Tom Brady.

Having fought for years with her Park City-based teammates to get women's ski jumping allowed in the Olympics, Hendrickson has dominated the first World Cup season that has permitted women alongside the men.

She has won six of the nine events so far, to all but clinch the overall season championship with four competitions still remaining, and ranks as the favorite heading into the Junior World Championships — she's still just young enough to qualify — this week in Erzurum, Turkey.

"You can't really put it into words," she said, "because it's almost surreal that it's happening."

Though Hendrickson has been viewed for some time as a star-of-the-future who won a bronze medal at the 2010 junior worlds, she faded badly as last season progressed. After reaching the podium four times on the Continental Cup tour — previously, the top level at which women could compete — Hendrickson ended her season with a disappointing 18th-place finish at junior worlds and a 16th-place finish at the second women's world championships in Oslo, Norway.

"Didn't have very good results," she acknowledged.

Obviously, Hendrickson was not yet ready to become the next Lindsey Van, her fellow Park City jumper and close friend who won the inaugural women's world championship in 2009 and spearheaded the fight to get women's ski jumping on the program for the 2014 Sochi Olympics in Russia.

But she still had come a long way.

Hendrickson already had been ski racing by the time she tried ski jumping as a 7-year-old, so the little K5 hill off which she first leaped was hardly intimidating. Nothing like the monster K90s she leaps off now, which can send her soaring more than 300 feet down the slope — about the length of an American football field.

"I think some of the jumps that I had hit when I was Alpine skiing were bigger than the smaller ski jumps, so I don't think I was really that scared," she recalled. "But I loved going fast and taking chances, so I think I was hooked since the first jumps and the first season I did it."

Though her tiny 5-foot-3 frame gives Hendrickson less speed off the jump than many of her competitors, it also generally allows her to soar farther.

And the only reason she didn't fare better last season, those around her believe, is because of school. An excellent student, Hendrickson simply couldn't balance competition with calculus.

"I was missing a lot of school," she said, "and when I was at home, I couldn't really train because I was making up schoolwork. And then when I was on the road, I was worrying about school. So I wasn't really putting all my effort into one thing. It was just kind of half-and-half."

So after Hendrickson finished her sophomore year at Park City High School, her parents (now divorced) enrolled her in the Winter Sports School in Park City, a private school — tuition, $16,896 — with an April-to-November academic calendar that allows promising winter athletes to complete their classes before their competitive seasons.

Now, "she can put all her attention into ski jumping and not worry about algebra when she's off in Ljubno or somewhere," said Rob Clayton, the head of the school.

And what do you know?

No sooner had Hendrickson finished her junior year at the Winter Sports School in November than she started owning the World Cup circuit. She said she "showed up at the first World Cup in December not knowing what to expect," and wound up winning.

She has seldom done anything else, in nearly three months since.

In fact, her lead over reigning world champion Daniela Iraschko of Austria in the overall World Cup standings is so big — 789 points to 578 — that even if Iraschko wins all four of the remaining events (she was won two, so far), Hendrickson would need only a string of fourths and fifths to claim the title.

She has been lower than second exactly once all season.

Hendrickson said her main goal is to win the individual title at the junior world championships, since the possibility of winning the World Cup title was not even on her radar at the start of the season. Her chances are pretty good, too; her top challengers Thursday are expected to be Slovenia's Katja Pozun and Japan's Sara Takanashi, neither of whom has beaten her this season.

Beyond that?

Surely, Sochi.

Yes, there are the FIS Nordic World Ski Championships again next year, the third for women.

But the Olympics are always the main attraction, and the ones in Sochi will be especially meaningful considering how hard Hendrickson and her fellow jumpers had to fight to be included in them. That pioneering breakthrough resonates especially with Hendrickson's mother, who was not permitted "to so much as look at jumping skis" when she was a teenager.

"It just wasn't allowed," Nancy Hendrickson said.

But things are different now.

Women can ski jump, and Hendrickson is climbing toward the top of the world.

mcl@sltrib.com

Ready to fly

Sarah Hendrickson and the other women ski jumpers who fought to be included in the Olympics are featured in the film "Ready to Fly," showing at Miller Megaplex theatres in Utah through Friday. Fans can buy the film online at http://www.readytoflyfilm.com, with proceeds benefitting Women's Ski Jumping USA.