Sarah Hendrickson has returned to ski jumping from a serious knee injury, she said Tuesday, giving her renewed hope of competing for a gold medal at the upcoming Sochi Olympics in Russia.
The 19-year-old reigning world champion from Park City, Utah has been jumping for the past week under a veil of secrecy on the 90-meter hill at the Utah Olympic Park; neither she nor her representatives would confirm during that span that she had returned to her sport, just five months after blowing out her knee in a training crash in Germany.
But now that she has, she's hopeful she can lead the Americans into the Olympics, where women will compete in ski jumping for the first time.
The U.S. Ski Team will name its three-woman ski jumping roster for Sochi on Wednesday, and Hendrickson now is all but certain to be on it, based on her past success. Teammate Jessica Jerome — also from Park City — already has clinched a spot on the team because she won a trials event last month.
Based on international results, former world champion Lindsey Van of Park City is expected to round out the team. Van was instrumental in forcing the International Olympic Committee to allow women to ski jump for the first time.
“The feeling of that first jump back was one of the best sensations in the entire world,” Hendrickson said in a press release issued by Women's Ski Jumping USA. “I just let go of the bar and felt completely comfortable. All my nerves simply disappeared. My knee feels very good considering the situation.”
Presuming she can return to top form, Hendrickson will be the top threat to overall World Cup champion Sara Takanashi of Japan, who has won eight of nine top-level events while Hendrickson has been out.
Hendrickson beat Takanashi for the world championship last year — she had 13 victories in the first two years the World Cup circuit had existed for women, before getting hurt — but Takanashi is the two-time defending World Cup champ, having dethroned Hendrickson last year and already clinched this year.
Only three other jumpers have reached the podium more than once on the World Cup circuit this season, and none of them are Americans.
In fact, with Hendrickson out, the U.S. team was unable to perform well enough to secure a fourth roster spot in Sochi, according to the International Ski Federation.
Hendrickson tore two ligaments and the meniscus in her right knee when she crashed on the landing of a spectacularly long jump in training Aug. 21 at Oberhof, Germany. Ski team doctor Andrew Cooper surgically repaired the injuries, and Hendrickson has been spending long days in rehab and recovery at the U.S. Ski Team's Center of Excellence in Park City.
“Sarah has done an outstanding job of taking baby steps every day,” coach Alan Alborn said. “She has exceeded everyone's expectations and continues to do so.”
Hendrickson said recently that she is as strong as she has ever been, by virtue of all the rehab work she had done for months, in place of actual ski jumping. That could be crucial, because Hendrickson had exactly three weeks from Tuesday until the Olympic competition on Feb. 11.
“Every day in the gym I was dreaming about the days when I would be back on the jumps,” she said. “Now that I have made it to that point, it is weight lifted off my shoulder. I, of course, didn't do this alone. My medical team, coaches, and all my supporters pushed me to make this possible and I can't thank them enough.
“Of course my knee gets sore after a hard day of training,” she added, “but that is to be expected and it's nothing I can't push past. I am still taking it day by day. I know I am still not 100 percent based on the timing out of surgery. However, everything is going great so far.”