KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia — Sarah Hendrickson sat on the start bar, the Olympic rings propped on a stand behind her, and stared down the long icy ramp toward the ski jump she'd been waiting to take practically all her life.
Eight years it took her colleagues to earn this for her. Eight years of fighting.
Now it all stretched out in front of her at the Sochi Olympics. The opportunity, the possibility ... the hope.
It was the first time that women had been allowed to ski jump at the Olympics, and the 19-year-old from Park City had drawn the No. 1 start bib, meaning that just four weeks after being allowed to jump again after reconstructive knee surgery, she would be the first woman ever to speed down the ramp and leap into the crisp night air with a gold medal on the line.
It was almost too much to take.
“I don't remember,” she said. “The pressure — everything — it kind of overtakes your mind.”
The body, too.
Just six months after blowing out her right knee in a training crash, Hendrickson could not summon the form that made her world champion less than a year ago. She finished 21st in a field of 30 women, last among the three Americans from Park City who had battled so long and so hard to get women's ski jumping admitted into the Olympics.
“My knee has been giving me a lot of pain since the surgery and didn't let up at all this week,” she said. “I tried to push it aside, but it still affects you.”
Her longtime teammates and friends enjoyed better finishes — Jessica Jerome was 10th and former world champion Lindsey Van was 15th, behind upset winner Carina Vogt of Germany — but all three of the women who changed the face of their sport said they appreciated the victory of participation far more than their placing on the score sheet.
“I am genuinely happy to be here,” Jerome said. “All the other girls are happy to be here. There's a camaraderie that all of us girls share, even from the other countries, because we've all been fighting the same fight for so many years. At the top of the jump, we're high-fiving Norwegians and Canadians and Finns. Everybody is just really happy.”
Especially the normally stolid Van, who alongside Jerome was at the forefront of the struggle to convince the International Olympic Committee that women should join the men in ski jumping at the Olympics.
It was the two of them who convinced jumpers from other nations to join a lawsuit aimed at forcing the IOC into admitting them for the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. The action failed in the Canadian courts, but ultimately succeeded by helping put enough pressure on the IOC to finally change its position and let women compete in Sochi.
“It was worth it,” Van said, smiling. “Everything was worth it.”
The competition itself turned conventional wisdom on its head, with two-time defending World Cup champion Sara Takanashi, who had won 10 of 13 World Cup events this season, failing to even medal in fourth place.
Vogt edged Austria's Daniela Iraschko-Stolz mostly on the strength of her first of two jumps, while France's Coline Mattel was third, despite making just one podium all season on the World Cup.
“I think everybody expected Sara Takanashi to dominate,” Hendrickson said. “It shows that everybody is human and pressure and being tired and media affects everybody.”
In retrospect, Hendrickson said she was probably undone by her inability to jump more in the weeks leading up to the Olympics.
Once she arrived here, she was cautious on her training jumps — last or close to it, in every one — and seemed to be favoring her knee during the competition. Even the doctor who performed her surgery last August and cleared her to jump last month, Andrew Cooper of Salt Lake Regional Medical Center, said he could barely stand to watch at first.
“I had a better training jump yesterday and I thought maybe I could pull something together,” Hendrickson said. “But again, it's a tough competition and those girls who did better than me absolutely deserve it.”
Still, in many ways the event felt more like a victory party.
The parents of Hendrickson and Jerome held a press conference before the event to discuss their long road to the Olympics — Van's parents did not make the trip — alongside former Salt Lake City mayor Deedee Corradini, the president of Women's Ski Jumping USA, the advocacy group created by Jerome's father in 2003 to start lobbying for Olympic inclusion.
“We've been waiting about 13 years for this moment,” Barbara Jerome said. “When it's all over, it just might sink in.”
For the jumpers, it seemed like it already had — finally, after all those years.
“I didn't let myself think about” what the Olympics would be like, Van said. “I wanted to experience it for what it was, and I'm doing that. And I'm glad I didn't let myself think about it, because it's way better. It's way better.
“It was a long time to get here and it was stressful and a lot of parts were not fun,” she added. “But once I got here, it turned fun real fast.”