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For two Park City ski jumpers, after all their struggles, Pyeongchang is where they soared and smiled

PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — The athletic careers of Abby Ringquist and Sarah Hendrickson have involved so much fighting, so much struggle, that the two Park City natives just wanted to enjoy their moment in the Olympic spotlight.

“My one goal today was to smile,” Ringquist said after competing in her first Olympic ski jumping competition Monday night at the Alpensia Jumping Center in Pyeongchang and finishing 29th. “And that’s what I’m doing. Regardless of how today went, I’m still so proud of myself.”

Hendrickson, who won a World Championship in 2013 and competed in the first Olympic women’s ski jumping competition in 2014, had similar goals after four knee surgeries kept her in near constant pain and from reaching her athletic potential.

“It’s nice not being here in constant knee pain,” said Hendrickson, who has fought through four knee surgeries to get back to her 2013 World Championship form. “I was 19th place, and I think I’m smiling more than some of the people who beat me. That’s what Abby and I do really well. We’re always smiling and having fun. We’re ski jumping; this is supposed to be fun, and this is the Olympics. There is nothing better than that.”

Norway’s Maren Lundby won gold with a score of 264.6, while Germany’s Katharina Althaus earned silver, scoring 252.6. Japan’s Sara Takanashi, one of the sport's most successful and a peer of Hendrickson’s, finished with bronze, scoring 243.8. Hendrickson scored 160.6, while Ringquist scored 144.4. The third American in the competition, Nita Englund missed the finals by one spot.

Like other competitions on Monday, the athletes were harassed by unpredictable, and what the 28-year-old Ringquist called “squirrely” winds.

“Obviously, it was a pretty rough day weather-wise,” the 23-year-old Hendrickson. “We knew coming here the wind would be difficult, and that’s definitely what happened. I had two pretty mediocre jumps for me, but it’s the best I’ve done all season, so I’m pretty content with it.”

Every athlete fights through challenges and setbacks just to earn the opportunity to compete for their country on sport’s largest stage. But Ringquist and Hendrickson had to struggle though personal battles while fighting just for the opportunity to compete in the Games.

The U.S. women led that fight, beginning in 2009, and have watched as the sport has exploded in popularity since being included in the Olympic program in 2014.

“I think people can tell the progression of women’s ski jumping since Sochi is tremendous,” Hendrickson said. “We have way more girls and countries, and I’m proud to be part of it.”

Ringquist, who missed out on the 2014 Games by one spot, said with her retirement and the retirement of many of the other women who fought the IOC to allow women to compete in the sport at the Olympics, is something of an end of an era.

“I would say to an extent,” Ringquist said. “But we have some young girls coming up, and I was lucky enough to watch them compete in their first World Cup a couple of weeks ago. It was almost like I was passing the torch to them. And it was such a cool feeling for me to experience that and to be able to cheer those young girls on. And going through what I’ve gone through I can help guide them. Because I didn’t have that growing up, and it’s a really special thing that they can look up to us and pursue their dreams.”

While Ringquist decided before the Games that the Olympics would mark the end of her jumping career, Hendrickson said she’s still deciding what’s next for her.

“I’m not sure about the future,” she said. “I will stay for the rest of the Games, and then go to two more World Cups in Germany. Then I’ll kind of re-assess my future. I definitely need to take a couple of months off and determine if I want to continue in the sport.” Ringquist said she’s still not sure she fully appreciates the reality of what she’s accomplished or experienced.

“I’m so proud of myself for pushing through the last four years and working my butt off to get to the Olympics,” she said. “It’s been a unique experience. Nothing else is like this. I’m living my childhood dream, and I’m meeting so many athletes, and appreciating so many different sports. It’s just incredible.” Both of them feel ski jumping will continue to grow and evolve, including among U.S. athletes.

“I would say (this is an end of an era) in a way, but that’s what it’s all about,” Hendrickson said. “It’s really cool to see younger girls coming up. We love seeing new girls on the start list. I’m excited to see what the future holds.”

Ringquist plans to stay involved in programs that inspire and mentor young women.

“I’ll probably continue working with the 1,000 Dreams fund, an organization that is helping fund girls pursuing whatever dream they have, whether it's music or sports or pursuing college,” she said. “It’s something I’m passionate about. I want to inspire girls in any way that I can as they pursue what they want to do in their lives.”