With a World Championship on the line, Park City’s Sarah Hendrickson stood at the top of the jump in Val di Fiemme, Italy, trembling.
“My first jump today, I was literally shaking,” said Hendrickson. “It was crazy.”
But then she summoned the faces of the two people who made it possible for her to become one of the world’s most accomplished ski jumpers at just 18 years of age.
“My whole thoughts today were about my mom and dad,” she said after out-jumping Japan’s Sara Takanashi by two points to earn the 2013 World Championship. “They came to see me, and I wanted to make them proud.”
She did that by putting together two near-perfect jumps to edge her 16-year-old rival that many have been pegged as the showdown for next year’s inaugural Olympic event in Sochi, Russia.
Despite their rivalry, they hold a deep respect for one another. Hendrickson said the rivalry with Takanashi makes her a better jumper and competitor.
“She’s two years younger than me, but she’s one of the strongest athletes on the mental side,” Hendrickson said. “I look up to her for that aspect. She jumps like it doesn’t even phase her It’s fun to have a rival on the hill.”
Takanashi has already clinched the other World Cup title this season, so Hendrickson knew it was the other teenager she’d have to beat Friday.
“For me to beat her is a huge accomplishment,” she said. “There was only two points difference between us. That shows just how hard the site was.”
The two battled back and forth last year and this, with Hendrickson earning eight podiums in two wins.
At a January World Cup event, Takanashi, who speaks very little English, sheepishly approached Hendrickson for an autograph. She handed her rival her own photo card to sign and said, “I’ve looked up to you forever. You’ve done so much for the sport of women’s ski jumping,” according to Whitney Childers, communications manager for the U.S. team.
Hendrickson wasn’t sure she’d won Friday until she saw the number one flash by her name on the big screen in the stadium. She was immediately surrounded by tearful teammates, some of whom began fighting for this opportunity when Hendrickson and Takanashi were still in elementary school.
“I’ve looked up to Lindsey Van, literally, since I was 10 years old,” Hendrickson said. “I watched her from the time I started jumping.”
Van won the inaugural women’s ski jumping World Championship, which makes two-of-three victories for the U.S. team.
“We are the strongest team in the world right now,” Hendrickson said. “We have a close personal connection. We’re best friends and competitors. We constantly support each other, and what they did to get our sport into the Olympics is amazing, and I can’t thank them enough.”
She said that just in the two years since the IOC decided to include women’s ski jumping in the Winter Games, the quality and quantity of jumpers has dramatically improved.
“There are more girls jumping, and the competition has grown so much,” she said. “It was really cool to see.”
Hendrickson saved her first hug for her brother, who left his Nordic combined training to watch his little sister win a world championship.
She said it was critically important to have the support she did, which U.S. jumpers don’t often enjoy as all of the competitions occur in Europe.
“My entire family is here today — mom, dad and brother,” she said. “No words can really express my happiness as I gave them a big hug after I won. It’s an amazing feeling to accomplish this and be with my teammates, friends and family. It’s the best feeling ever.”
Hendrickson should be comfortable on the hill in Val Di Fiemme as it is the hometown of U.S. head coach Paolo Bernardi.
“His dad built these ski jumps,” she said. “I’ve had an amazing relationship for the past two years he’s been coaching. To share this with him, in his hometown, is awesome. No words needed to be exchanged — just hugs and happiness.”
Hendrickson’s accomplishment is something she’s still trying to appreciate.
“I can’t even put into words right now,” she said. “I’m so happy. I had confidence on this hill and knew I could have good jumps. But standing at the top before the first round, my heart was beating and everything was shaking and I didn’t know if I could pull it off. But obviously I put together two good jumps.”