Sarah Hendrickson: Out of thin air

The following is an excerpt from an article published at ParkRecord.com:

The youngest nordic athlete ever named to the U.S. Ski Team and the first American ski jumper to medal at the Junior World Championship, Sarah Hendrickson has already made her share of history.

Now just 16, the Treasure Mountain ninth grader will launch herself toward an even more inspiring milestone: becoming the inaugural women’s Olympic ski jumping champion.

“I knew from the time she was 7 or 8, she would be one of the best in the world,” said reigning world champion and longtime Hendrickson mentor Lindsey Van. “She had more drive and determination than other kids her age. I hadn’t seen a kid who knew what they wanted to do and where they wanted to go as much as Sarah.”

Much has yet to fall in place – women’s ski jumping is not currently a part of the Olympic program – but Hendrickson is on course to land among the top contenders for gold if the sport is featured at the 2014 Games in Sochi, Russia.

Following a succession of strong results against the sport’s elite competitors in 2009-10, she was named the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association’s Ski Jumping Athlete of the Year at the USSA Chairman’s Awards Dinner at the Yarrow Resort on Friday, May 14.

“I am not sure what clicked this year,” Hendrickson said. “I just took each competition one at a time and had fun with it.”

Ski jumping has come easily for Hendrickson since she was just a tyke, and she’s had no shortage of good advice along the way. With Van, Abby Hughes, Alissa Johnson, Jessica Jerome and other U.S. teammates living and training in Park City, she grew up surrounded by most of the country’s top women’s jumpers.

“(The proximity) is really nice,” Hendrickson said. “If we just hold a local competition, it’s still pretty intense.”

Hendrickson first strapped on skis at Park City Mountain Resort as a 2-year-old and began jumping at age 7. She was drawn to the jumps by family – her father was a competitive jumper and her brother Nick competes in nordic combined events on the World Cup circuit – and she began training under Van’s watch at Utah Olympic Park in 2004.

For those harboring concerns about a small girl flying through the air for the length of more than two football fields, rest assured: Ski jumping is surprisingly low-risk, compared to other snow-sport disciplines. Athletes soar close to the ground, and there are no obstacles for them to collide with except the snow itself. Also, Hendrickson points out, “you start small.”

“When you first go off a bigger jump, it’s kind of scary, but you get used to it,” she said. She was 12 when she first flew from the 90-meter jump at Utah Olympic Park.

People often don’t realize how far ski jumpers fly, she said, and women can go nearly as far as the top men. Van held the record for one of the jumps in Vancouver until a handful of male athletes surpassed her at the 2010 Games.

“It just feels like anything is possible,” Hendrickson said of jumping. “It’s kind of indescribable.”

In addition to taking bronze at the 2010 Junior World Championships in Hinterzarten, Germany, Hendrickson scored 15 top-10s and three podium finishes on the Continental Cup – the top rung of competition in women’s ski jumping. Nineteenth the year before as a 14-year-old (in which she was second at the U.S. Ski Jumping Championships), Hendrickson ended sixth in last year’s overall season standings.

“She’s had a few phenomenal performances,” Van said. “There are not many people her age in the world – maybe one other girl – who can do what she can do.”

Van said that Hendrickson has a very high vertical leap for her age and is also exceptional in her other pursuits, which include alpine and telemark skiing, soccer, unicycle riding and biking.

Click here to read the entire article.

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