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A rising star felled by injuries, Sarah Hendrickson still dreams of Olympic medals in her second Games

PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — For one glorious afternoon, Bill Hendrickson saw his daughter living the experience she deserved.

“She looked like her old Sarah self,” said the Park City man who introduced his then-7-year-old daughter to the sport that would carry her to two Olympic Games. “She has struggled so much with knee pain and disappointment, and she hasn’t been in top form for a while. It was very rewarding, and, with the energy of the crowd, a beautiful day, you could see the confidence return to her. She has high expectations for herself, and I could see the relief, see it falling off her shoulders, see the joy replace it, consume her. And she was really back to ‘This is why I work so hard.’”

Earning a spot on her second Olympic team was the highlight of the 23-year-old’s 2017-18 season. That’s because it’s been a long, difficult road for Sarah Hendrickson, from that brilliant afternoon during the 2002 Salt Lake Winter Games to the Alpensia Ski Jump center in the mountains of Pyeongchang, South Korea.

The 23-year-old's affection for ski jumping was born that afternoon with her father, but, as she aged, it became a much more complicated relationship, fraught with the kind of frustration and heartbreak that requires a level of grit and commitment so intense, it could only from a deep, abiding love.

When she burst onto the scene as an adorable, dimpled, Park City High student, she seemed destined to be a force in the sport. Women's ski jumping was thrust onto the world stage in 2010 when women sued the Vancouver Organizing Committee for the opportunity to compete in the 2010 Olympic Games. The IOC repeatedly rejected the efforts of women around the world, led by former Salt Lake City Mayor Deedee Corradini, to gain access to one of the Winter Olympics’ oldest, most traditional events.

When the women finally won that right in 2013, Hendrickson and her teammates were consistently among the world’s best. At 17, she won the first ever World Championship, edging Japan’s teenage sensation Sara Takanashi. Six months after that victory in Val Di Fiemme, she tore her ACL on a training jump in Oberstdorf, where a day earlier, she’d recorded her person best jump.

U.S. Ski and Snowboard officials named her to the U.S. team, despite her being unable to even compete in the U.S. Olympic Trials, held a month before the Sochi Winter Games in 2014.

Hendrickson was granted the honor of being the first woman to jump in the Olympic Games, but she was not 100 percent and finished 21st, behind two of her U.S. teammates — Jessica Jerome (10th) and Lindsey Van (15th). Corradini, who was in the stands as the women competing, died a year after that historic moment at age 70.

In the months and years after 2014 Games, Hendrickson endured three more knee surgeries and repeated injuries that have meant daily knee pain and almost constant frustration. Her physical struggles have relegated her to the periphery of a sport that it once looked like she might dominate.

Consider that her rival Takanashi has gone on to become the most successful female ski jumper in the sport. At age 21, she’s among those favored to medal in Pyeongchang. Hendrickson, however, doesn’t have time — or space in her heart — to be bitter about what might have been.

Sarah is just grateful for good days and great jumps, like the one that allowed her to compete in her second Olympics on Monday, Feb. 12.

Her goals are still as lofty as when she was a child, moved by the beauty of a sport most Americans ignore. But they are tinged with a reality that is no less inspiring.

“I really just want to go and enjoy it and do the best I can,” she said. “I want to have a medal, and I dream about that everyday. But I really don’t want to walk away disappointed if I don’t get a medal. There is no reason to walk away disappointed from a bad result. It’s just one day.”

Hendrickson’s strategy is to focus on the joy of jumping. It’s the reason she started, and it’s what pulled her through those long, bleak days of training in pain.

“In ski jumping, it’s better to be relaxed,” she said. “It’s quite a simple sport if you let muscle memory take over.”

Sarah’s success was never a question of ability.

“She’s got the talent,” Bill Hendrickson said. “She’s show the world since she was 15 or 16 years old that she could be in the top 10 in the world. She knew she was capable, but she’s just had to work through injuries and pain … and setbacks for so long. We really questioned whether she’d be able to make it back.”

Bill Hendrickson said his daughter endured those years of setback and pain because her passion for ski jumping is part of who she is.

“Her effort is fueled by passion, passion for ski jumping,” he said. “It’s amazing how hard you work for that six seconds, that reward. She’s a very intense little package. She’s driven, focused and determined. She knows she has talent, and she was just determined that if she could do the right things, work hard, there would be a pay day.”