Time was my biggest issue, and once my doctor said it was possible (to recover in time for the 2014 Olympics), I put my head down and worked my butt off. I had to believe in myself from day one off the operating table — otherwise it wouldn’t work. —Sarah Hendrickson
PARK CITY — Sarah Hendrickson always thought she would be making history on Dec. 29, 2013 — not watching it from the stands.
But a knee injury robbed the reigning world and national women’s ski jump champion of competing in the first-ever Olympic trials for her sport.
“Watching Olympic trials was heartbreaking,” the 19-year-old wrote in an email to the Deseret News Friday afternoon. “Of course I have other ways to qualify, but I set that goal in my head this past spring, and I don’t like failing.”
As gut-wrenching as it was to watch her teammates compete without her for one of four spots on the team that will represent the U.S. in the sport’s inaugural Olympic appearance in Sochi, Russia, she said it was also inspiring.
“It also gave me motivation through these next weeks so that I could get back on the hill again,” she said.
Hendrickson injured her knee in a training accident in Germany on Aug. 21. A few days later she was back in Park City undergoing surgery performed by Dr. Andrew Cooper to repair tears to her ACL and MCL.
In an interview with ESPNW last week, Dr. Cooper said Hendrickson’s strength and range of motion are amazing.
“I couldn’t find a reason not to let her do it,” he told ESPN.
As Hendrickson prepares to test her body on snow in the coming week, she discussed just how difficult coming back from the injury has been and what has kept her motivated as she tries to earn her spot on the U.S. Olympic team that will be named on Jan. 22.
“The first two weeks were really hard because of the pain,” Hendrickson said. “I could not walk, sleep or drive, and that drove me crazy. The thought of Sochi was pushed out of my mind because I just wanted to be normal again.”
In September, Hendrickson said that she slid to a stop and knew right away she was hurt.
“I tried to deny that anything was wrong and just told myself it was sore,” she said. “It was pretty devastating. I won’t sugarcoat it. I was on such a good path. I was jumping well, having some of the best jumps of my life when I fell. That’s really hard, but you know, you can only be sad for so long. And then you have to pick yourself up and you work back and fight against the odds. If you want to make it to Sochi, that’s obviously what I’m going to have to do.”
It was Dr. Cooper who convinced her that her dream was still within reach.
“Time was my biggest issue, and once my doctor said it was possible (to recover in time for the 2014 Olympics), I put my head down and worked my butt off,” Hendrickson told the Deseret News. “I had to believe in myself from day one off the operating table — otherwise it wouldn’t work.”
Hendrickson said there have definitely been difficult days, but she's had plenty of support and motivation as she's worked hard to keep her Olympic dream alive.
“I have had so many supporters through this entire process,” she said. “Of course my mom, and the endless nights of her getting up to get my meds and food. In the gym, my medical team has been outstanding and without their confidence and support, I would not be where I am today. As well as my sponsors — my biggest fear was losing them and not only have they stuck with me, but helped me in every way possible to get back to jumping.”
Hendrickson admits she dreams often of ski jumping.
“Not all were good, but it is in my thoughts always,” she said.
It is her lifelong goal that kept her motivated when six hours in the gym threatened to wear her down.
“I just want to walk into the opening ceremonies and whenever I wanted to give up, I just pictured myself accomplishing that and push through.”
In an interview in September, Hendrickson said the most difficult part of coming back from an injury will be the mental aspects of landing.
“The biggest obstacle will be landing — or the fear of landing,” she said. “Really, I think it’s just a mental game. I think I’ll know by then if I’m physically ready. Mentally, I just have to tell myself I’m ready. If I get the OK from doctors, it’s full throttle.”
She said not jumping has been difficult — emotionally and physically.
“It’s really hard not to be jumping,” she said. “I love the sport and just miss the feel of flying and the pressure of competing. That is what I live for. I have just tried to distract myself and keep my eye on the goal with all the supporters around me.”
Exacerbating her pain was the fact that everything seemed to be falling into place for a fairy-tale ending.
“I peaked at the right time and won world championships, which was one of the best moments of my life,” she said. “That gave me a ton of confidence having that under my belt before an Olympic year. Everything was going fantastic. I was jumping well and getting stronger. I was finally getting used to the feeling that I could accomplish my dreams and then this happens.”
Finding the will to fight was the hardest part.
“It’s pretty devastating,” she said. “In the beginning it was very hard to stay positive. Half of you, you just want to give up.” But that’s not the nature of those involved in her sport.
“Being in a sport like women’s ski jumping, where you haven’t been included for so long, I mean, none of us gave up,” she said. “We’re here. We’re still fighting. And hopefully we’ll get a chance to achieve our dreams.”
With the support she’s enjoyed, she said staying positive has been much easier.
“We’re so closely knit,” she said of her teammates. "It’s the fight we’ve gone through.” When Hendrickson has time to let her mind drift, she always goes to one place.
“I daydream about being healthy and walking into opening ceremonies and seeing my family in the crowd,” she said, “knowing that I have made them proud.”