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Women's ski jump: Fighting spirit prevails, women to jump in 2014

PARK CITY — When Nancy Hendrickson asked about trying the ski jump at her New Hampshire high school, she was turned away.

Coaches assured her they weren't being mean. They were simply trying to protect her — and apparently her unborn children.

"That was the excuse," said Hendrickson, who graduated from high school in 1981. "That you cannot ski jump because you won't be able to have children. To think we actually believed that."

That myth might not make Hendrickson laugh if it hadn't been shattered, in part by her own daughter.

At 17, Sarah Hendrickson came of age just at the right time to take advantage of the gut-wrenching pioneering done by her older teammates, especially Park City's Lindsey Van, the sport's first World Champion (2009).

After a mediocre season, Sarah worked hard under new coaches Alan Alborn and Paolo Bernardi through the summer and fall, and the results were historic for her, the U.S. team and the sport.

Sarah won nine of 13 events this season and earned the overall World Cup title. She set at least two distance records and earned a silver medal at the Junior World Championships this winter as well.

But what really made this winter special was that Sarah won consistently, something the American men have never been able to do.

"We were never really considered contenders on a weekly basis," said Alborn, who participated in three Olympics as a ski jumper and took over coaching duties in June 2011. "But the Americans always step it up when it matters because we have that fighting spirit."

That spirit helped the women battle misinformation and decades of prejudice that ski jumping was too rough for women. And this season the women were given renewed purpose after the IOC announced women's ski jumping would be included in the 2014 Winter Games last April.

The women enjoyed their first World Cup season, and the U.S. team took full advantage of it by winning the International Ski Federation's World Cup Nations Team title by more than 600 points.

The accomplishment went a long way to heal the wounds left by a battle most people couldn't believe they had to fight in 21st Century.

The U.S. women ski jumpers have always looked good on paper. But the level of competition was lower, as was the visibility. The support was almost non-existent until the IOC finally surrendered a battle many believed they should never have fought.

"Two years ago we knew they were one of the best teams in the world," said Alborn. "With the struggle to get into the Vancouver Games, that really hurt (the U.S. ski jumpers)."

It forced the athletes to think about legal battles, media strategy and politically-charged meetings. They became activists when what they really wanted, all they'd ever wanted, was to compete. And as competitors, they wanted to challenge themselves at the highest level possible.

The fight was discouraging, heart-breaking and emotionally exhausting.

"It took their focus off of what they were really," Alborn said. "It got far too political for athletes in their positions."

Last year's world championship didn't look like a success, but it was — regardless of the outcome. The IOC relented and in April, they were officially included.

Sarah never started jumping to become an Olympian. She simply grew tired of watching her brother (who skis for the U.S. Nordic combined team) have all the fun. She said she didn't even realize girls were excluded from World Cup and Olympic competition until she was already entrenched in the sport and its culture.

"I never really thought about it as a reason to do a sport when I initially got into it," she said. "I just did it to have fun. I think as I got further into it, and I started competing internationally at a high level, that's when I started to think about it."

She hoped that doorway would be open for her when she was ready, but when the world's female ski jumpers made their boldest move — a lawsuit against the Vancouver Organizing Committee in hopes of being included in 2010 — Sarah was still developing her competitive skills.

"It was a struggle for the older girls more than me," said Sarah.

But it is a struggle she appreciates, even as she competes with and against the women who made her World Cup moment possible.

"I owe it all to her and the older girls," said Sarah, "for pushing to get into the Olympics. She's super supportive of me; she's awesome. She's super proud of me and I love training with her."

The fact that the U.S. women are jumping so consistently under any circumstance and in any venue has given coaches and athletes a lot to look forward to.

"This season, especially, really solidifies what they've done," Alborn said. "It shows everybody that not just that they wanted to compete at the highest level, but that they could."

Little girls who got into the sport a few years ago had to be satisfied with loving the sport for what it could offer them right now. They didn't have the future, the limitless possibilities that their male counterparts had.

"In the past, it could get really negative, because they would think, 'it's not going to get me where I want to go,' " said Alborn. "People have to believe in something. … That's huge for them," he said of being able to aspire to be part of the world's greatest sporting event.

"Maybe they'll never stand on the podium … but to be part of the whole Olympic movement is really special for them."

And for those who love them. When Sarah Hendrickson won her overall World Cup title in Norway two weeks ago, she did it in front of her mother and 81-year-old grandmother, Arline Bownes.

"She just had a smile from ear to ear," said Nancy Hendrickson. "It was a thrill to see her light up when Sarah would jump."

Team USA women

Here are their final standings for the season:

1. Sarah Hendrickson, USA

5. Lindsey Van, USA

9. Jessica Jerome, USA

25. Abby Hughes, USA

31. Alissa Johnson, USA

* All five of women on the team live and train in Park City, Utah.