Ski jumping: Sarah Hendrickson races to compete in Sochi
Under normal circumstances, ski jumper Sarah Hendrickson would be fine-tuning her form and starting to make her final preparations for a run at a gold medal at the 2014 Sochi Olympics in Russia.
But these are hardly normal circumstances.
The reigning world champion from Park City, still just 19 years old, is in a race against the clock simply to qualify for the historic Games, the first that will include women ski jumpers alongside the men.
With only a month until her sport's inaugural competition on the hill at RusSki Gorki Jumping Center, she's still recovering from a severe right knee injury suffered in a training crash nearly five months ago. And she can't yet be sure if she will be ready for the momentous occasion for which she helped fight for so long.
"I'm taking it day by day," she said.
In an email exchange with The Tribune, Hendrickson said her rehabilitation has gone "pretty close to the plan" and that she's as strong as she's ever been. She's spent hundreds of hours since her injury in the gym and treatment facilities at the U.S. Ski Team's Center of Excellence in Park City.
But she has yet to jump again on snow maybe this week finally, knock wood and doesn't have all the answers she needs.
"Since I haven't jumped yet, I really don't know what my next obstacle is," she said. "I have the strength, support, positive attitude and the power is close to perfect. However, until I take those first jumps, I have no idea how it will turn out."
Hendrickson had been considered a top contender for the gold medal until her injury, along with rival Sara Takanashi of Japan.
Hard to say.
The 17-year-old Takanashi has been solidifying her position as the favorite while Hendrickson has been on the sidelines. Takanashi has won five of the six World Cup competitions heading into another one Sunday in Japan, and already has clinched the overall season title.
Meanwhile, the other top Americans, all from Park City, have not exactly dominated.
Although Jessica Jerome clinched one of probably four spots on the team for Sochi by winning an Olympic Trials event at the Utah Olympic Park last month Â the U.S. will earn either three or four places total, depending on their international results through Jan. 19 Â neither she nor former world champion Lindsey Van have finished higher than ninth in four World Cup competitions heading into Sunday.
Only one other jumper, Alissa Johnson, has finished in the top 25 on the World Cup tour this season, with a 14th-place finish Saturday in Japan.
"The girl jumpers are getting stronger every year, and everybody's really close," Jerome said. "I'm just working hard every day and I'm getting closer and I know that I'm not far off, and I'm confident in myself."
The team for Sochi will be named Jan. 22, and Hendrickson can be included as a discretionary pick, based on her tremendous past success Â world champion last year, overall World Cup champion in 2012 (she was second last season), and 13 victories in the two years the World Cup circuit has existed for women.
Coach Alan Alborn has said she deserves to be on the team, too, but that all depends on whether she's healthy enough to compete.
"Unfortunately, I cannot get named to the Olympic team or win a medal by the number of hours I have booked in the gym," Hendrickson said. "Therefore, I will have to assess my level once I get to jump again."
If she jumps this week, Hendrickson will have only about four weeks to fully train for Sochi. The women's competition is Feb. 11.
Hendrickson suffered a particularly devastating injury when she crashed on the landing of a jump in Germany on Aug. 21 Â a jump that reportedly would have smashed the world distance record, by the way, and was so far that Hendrickson landed on the flat area beyond the incline where she typically would land.
She had a surgery just a few days later in which ski team doctor Andrew Cooper repaired a torn anterior cruciate ligament, a torn medial collateral ligament and a torn meniscus.
She was in a brace for months, often in unbearable pain.
"In the beginning of the recovery, it was really hard to see how my whole plan was going to work since I was in so much pain," she said. "On the plus side, everything has gone pretty close to the plan. Of course we have had minor setbacks where we would have to change a few things around, but luckily my body reacted really well to treatment. I am very lucky about how well it has all gone, and many people are shocked by it all."
Count Cooper among them.
The doctor told ESPN last week that he saw no reason not to clear Hendrickson to start progressing toward actual jumping.
"She looks amazing," he said, "her strength, her range of motion, her power numbers. I gave her a hug and looked her in the eye and told her to be honest with me and with her knee. She said she would."
Now it's just a race to see if Hendrickson can be fit, confident and comfortable enough to take her shot at making history. She said the process has been as difficult mentally as it has been physically, and she's trying to put faith in all the effort she has put into her recovery.
"I have spent so many hours in the gym, and specifically in the last month, I have wanted to give up," she said. "I have felt ready to jump for a few weeks, so to be held back by my medical team was frustrating.Â Again, I just have to trust all the hard hours that I have put into the recovery and know everything will work itself out for some reason or another."
Age • 19
Hometown • Park City
• Reigning world ski jumping champion who won overall World Cup title in 2012 and finished second last season.
• Tore knee ligaments and the meniscus in her right knee Aug. 21 in training crash in Germany.
• Helped teammates and other jumpers from around the world fight to be included in the Olympics for the first time.