I don’t think it’s really set in. —Sarah Hendrickson
PARK CITY — His affection for ski jumping was born on a secondhand jump in the suburbs of Chicago, while her dream took flight a decade before women were even allowed to compete in the Olympic event.
In front of the largest crowd at the Utah Olympic Park since the 2002 Olympics, Chicago-native Michael Glasder and Park City’s Sarah Hendrickson earned the only guaranteed spots on the U.S. Olympic ski jump team with victories in Sunday’s Olympic Trials.
Hendrickson won with a combined score of 263.4, with Park City’s Abby Ringquist finishing second with 248.1 points.
In the men’s event, Glasder edged his Illinois teammate, Kevin Bickner, 270 to 268.6.
“I don’t think it’s really set in,” said Hendrickson, who was the reigning world champion and gold-medal favorite before suffering an ACL tear that prevented her from doing anything but minimal training before placing 21st in the 2014 Olympics. “It’s pretty emotional just because the four years have been so tough. I think a lot of people haven’t seen me since Sochi, and (they) don’t realize that I’ve had four knee surgeries since. I was really excited after Sochi to have four years of regaining strength and gaining confidence back, and it just felt like I went though surgery after surgery.”
Winning Sunday’s trials was more than another medal for her collection.
“This gives me confidence that hard work pays off,” she said. “And if you keep working for your dream, you’ll get there. That’s something that will stick with me for the rest of my life. That’s a really good lesson to hold with you.”
Sunday’s event featured some of the country’s best young talent, but the afternoon belonged to two veterans who are intimately familiar with heartbreak. The 28-year-old Glasder and 23-year-old Hendrickson may have been among the contenders, but their careers have been so replete with disappointment that they could take nothing for granted.
Hendricks said her only goal Sunday morning was to recapture the joy she experienced when she first witnessed the sport as a 7-year-old.
“I never really get the opportunity to jump (in front of a home crowd),” she said, “so for me, my goal was to have fun and just smile today. Those who are close to me know that’s been really challenging the last four years. When I got up this morning, that was what I set my mind on because I want to love ski jumping. That’s why we’re all out here.”
She said it was heartening to see the record-setting crowd of about 7,000 people in the park below her.
“It just brings a smile to my face,” she said. “I remember when I was 7 years old and I walked up from my house to watch the men’s ski jumping event. That’s when I fell in love with ski jumping. I thought it was so unique, so beautiful, and something technical that I wanted to be a part of. I’m basically a result of the 2002 Olympic legacy that Park City and Salt Lake has continued to develop for younger athletes. I really didn’t know how many people were going to show up. To see all those cars driving up the hill and feel all that support, it’s amazing. It’s the best feeling in the world to know you have all these people behind you in your town that you can go to. That just made today so much more fun.”
Glasder said he’d never seen a crowd that big in the U.S.
“It was actually amazing,” said Glasder, who was one of four skiers from the famed Norge Ski Club in Illinois. “Anyone from our team could have won, and I was just the lucky one.”
He was introduced to the sport through an uncle when he was 5.
“I started jumping on a rickety pair of skis,” Glasder said. “We didn’t have the coaching or facilities to create world class athletes, but in 2001 or 2002, the club got a jump from Ely, Minnesota, put it up in Fox River Grove. Now it’s one of the best training places in the country. It’s had a huge impact on the nation as a whole.”
Park City has been home to a robust women’s ski jump program since the 2002 Games, and they were at the forefront of fighting to add women to the Olympic event.
Since that first Olympic women’s ski jumping competition four years ago, the competition has gotten tougher and the field deeper.
“Honestly, we have five girls who could have won today,” Hendrickson said. “It was really anybody’s game. When you have that, you just have to focus on yourself. I’m really thankful I was able to compete because I wasn’t able to compete here four years ago.”
For both athletes, the last four years have been a test of mental will as much as physical strength. Chasing an Olympic dream can become so daunting that one forgets it was born in joy and sustained with passion.
And Sunday afternoon, under a clear blue sky and in front of thousands of screaming fans, for the first time in a long time, smiling wasn’t something either athlete had to think about.
“You just have to have fun and enjoy this moment,” Hendrickson said. “I think we put on a pretty good show today.”