Overcoming four years of injuries, Park City’s Sarah Hendrickson flies back into Winter Olympics

(Scott Sommerdorf | The Salt Lake Tribune) Sarah Hendrickson starts her day by walking to the event prior to the ski jumping Olympic trials at Park City, Sunday, December 31, 2017.

Park City • In the shadow of the hill where her daughter exorcised an entire Olympics cycle worth of demons, Nancy Hendrickson leaned back and exhaled. She tried to find the words adequate for the feeling, but for a few seconds, all she could do was look up to the bluebird sky, smile and breathe deeply.

“That girl has gone through … hell and back,” she said. “And I’ve seen it every day.”

A few feet away, Sarah Hendrickson accepted a hug from anyone who offered. She took selfies with friends. She signed poster boards and jackets of young fans who stopped her at the base of the jumping hill at the Utah Olympic Park.

She eventually handed off her flower bouquet — the one that designated Hendrickson the winner of Sunday’s U.S. Olympic Team Trials — to mom, who held it tight in her left hand.

Nancy Hendrickson couldn’t bring herself to watch the last jump of the afternoon, the one that resulted in tears in front of what was estimated as the largest crowd at the Olympic Park since the 2002 Olympic Winter Games. The cowbells kept on clanging, and the American flags whipped back and forth when Hendrickson finally skied to a halt.

“I was sort of one eye open,” Nancy Hendrickson said, “one eye closed.”

When she opened her eyes, her daughter completed a moment that over the past four years seemed at times tricky to picture. There was Sarah, the one-time face of women’s ski jumping and its fight for equality and Olympic inclusion, being hoisted up by teammates, placing both gloves on the top of her helmet in disbelief. She won, booking a flight to Pyeongchang, South Korea, for the 2018 Olympics.

(Scott Sommerdorf | The Salt Lake Tribune) Sarah Hendrickson reacts after winning the Ladies Ski Jumping Olympic Trials at Park City, Sunday, December 31, 2017.

“This gives me confidence that hard work pays off,” Sarah Hendrickson said, “and if you keep working for a dream, then you’ll get there. And that is something that will stick with my for the rest of my life.”

The past four years have been replete with bad breaks. After suffering a torn ACL before the 2014 Olympics, Hendrickson returned in time to compete in the historic inaugural women’s ski jumping event in Sochi, Russia. What followed were four more knee injuries the past four years, putting the Park City jumper further behind the growing sport.

“I’ve seen what she’s gone through the last four years,” Nancy Hendrickson said, “and it hasn’t been easy at all with how many surgeries, rehab … I’m just so proud of her.”

(Scott Sommerdorf | The Salt Lake Tribune) Sarah Hendrickson reacts after winning the Ladies Ski Jumping Olympic Trials at Park City, Sunday, December 31, 2017.

It’d been nearly three years since Hendrickson felt as good as she did entering this weekend. She spent the past two weeks in her hometown, practicing on the hill she learned to fly on, taking about 25 training jumps in the week leading up to her victory.

In front of an estimated crowd of 7,000 spectators, Sarah Hendrickson flew like her old self.

“Live each day and ski jump like it’s your last,” she summarized her motto.

Before her final flight Sunday, her former teammates huddled near the bleachers. Women’s ski jumping pioneers Lindsey Van, Jessica Jerome and Alissa Johnson, who along with Hendrickson were part of the team to ensure women’s ski jumping joined the Olympics in 2011, looked on as Hendrickson cut through the air.

When her skis touched down, they fought their way through the crowd to find her.

“You could definitely see a sense of relief,” Van said, “and true happiness from her today.”

(Scott Sommerdorf | The Salt Lake Tribune) Sarah Hendrickson reacts after winning the Ladies Ski Jumping Olympic Trials at Park City, Sunday, December 31, 2017.

Afterward, Hendrickson said she’d seen her career on the hill flash before her eyes so many times the previous four years, wondering if she’d ever be back to the sort of performances she put in in the trials. She got through the persistent aches and pains, through the rehab sessions, through being glued to the couch watching the world’s talent pool take off.

But Sarah Hendrickson returned Sunday. She flew. And she’ll fly once more in South Korea.

“I think a lot of people haven’t seen me since Sochi,” she joked.

U.S. Olympic Team Trials<br>Ski jumping<br>Women’s trials<br>1. Sarah Hendrickson, 263.4 (qualified for 2018 Olympics)<br>2. Abby Ringquist, 248.1<br>3. Nita Englund, 238.9<br>Men’s trials<br>1. Michael Glasder, 270 (qualified for 2018 Olympics)<br>2. Kevin Bickner, 268.6<br>3. William Rhoads, 256.6

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