Park City •Â Ski jumper Sarah Hendrickson may well be the face of her sport, after winning the inaugural World Cup championship last season and establishing herself as a gold-medal favorite at the 2014 Sochi Olympics in Russia.
But she isn't quite sure about this year, yet.
Not even a week after graduating high school, the high-flying 18-year-old from Park City opens the new World Cup season on Friday in Lillehammer, Norway, uncertain about her prospects after knee surgery last spring. Turns out, Hendrickson claimed her astonishing nine victories in 13 competitions last year while coping with cartilage damage that had been diagnosed before the season.
"I'd love to be on the podium again," she said. "But I just have to show up and I have to remember that I'm still technically recovering from this injury. â¦ So I'm kind of in the dark about that. I just have to go out and jump for me. There's going to be a lot of pressure there, but I just have to remember why I love this sport so much and do what I do."
Hendrickson will be joined on the World Cup circuit by fellow Park City natives Lindsey Van the former world champion and Jessica Jerome, comprising a trio that coach Alan Alborn said was "looking stronger than ever as a group" in the gym over the summer.
"Sarah can definitely fight again for the overall title," coach Paolo Bernardi said, "but the main focus is to keep her healthy and the main goal is being in top shape" later in the season.
Indeed, both Hendrickson and Van are returning from offseason surgeries, so questions are sure to abound unless and until the jumpers look like their old selves again.
"It's kind of hard to set certain goals," Hendrickson said. "A lot of people expect me to repeat what I did last year, but I was jumping on a high level for myself ... so it's definitely going to be not an easy feat doing that."
Especially after having microfracture surgery in April.
That's a procedure that involves drilling tiny holes in the bone of the knee to stimulate the growth of new cartilage, and its recovery typically takes about six months. Hendrickson put off the surgery from last year, because she did not want to disrupt what turned out to be a championship season.
So, according to the calendar, Hendrickson should be just about healed. And she feels pretty good.
But is she 100 percent?
"I can finally say Sarah is back," Bernardi said.
Hendrickson was not so certain. "I don't really know," she said. "Obviously, I'm confident and I want to be confident. But I need to know that it's not going to be an easy season."
Hendrickson said she's trying not to worry much about results, especially early in the season. Many of the other jumpers have been training all summer and fall, while she was stuck in the gym rehabbing and did not start jumping again until September.
Her top rivals figure to include Austria's Daniela Iraschko, the first woman to jump over 200 meters who nevertheless finished a distant second in the World Cup standings last season, and 16-year-old Sara Takanashi of Japan, who was third.
Van could pose a serious threat, too, having won the 2009 world title while spearheading the battle to get women's ski jumping into the Olympics.
The world championships are a focus for Hendrickson this year Â they're scheduled Feb. 20 to March 3 in Val di Fiemme, Italy mostly because she has never performed well at them. She was 29th as a 14-year-old when Van won in the Czech Republic, and just 19th two years ago in Norway, when her mother and grandmother traveled to watch her compete.
"When it comes down to it, though," she said, "I just have to focus on my jumping and hopefully the results will come."