Born To Fly

Meet Sarah Hendrickson, the 19-year-old who's about to shatter the Winter Olympics' coldest glass ceiling

[Ski jumping will be the event to catch in Sochi]

Sarah Hendrickson, the reigning ski-jumping world champion, has heard all the feeble excuses. She and her teammates learned to laugh at the most twisted and implausible ones. What else could they do? Starting in 1998, female ski jumpers petitioned for Olympic inclusion. Again and again, they were turned down. There just aren’t enough women competing, went one trope. It is traditionally a men’s sport, went another. A decade ago, the president of skiing’s global governing body told an interviewer that women shouldn’t jump because it seemed “not to be appropriate for ladies from a medical point of view.” Says Hendrickson, 19: “I’ve heard things about how the sport would make our ovaries fall out. We would joke like, if someone jumped far, ‘Oh, you can’t have babies.'”

In a milestone for Olympic gender equity, women’s ski jumping will finally make its debut during the Sochi Games, which begin Feb. 6. Over the past dozen years, combat sports like women’s wrestling and boxing have been added to the Olympic program, but ski jumping–a graceful event in which competitors take almost serene flight–couldn’t break the glass ceiling. (Nordic combined, a Winter Olympic sport that mixes cross-country skiing and ski jumping, remains all-male.)

Hendrickson’s older American teammates Lindsey Van, 29, and Jessica Jerome, 26, helped lead a protracted battle for inclusion. They even joined a gender-discrimination lawsuit in Canada before the 2010 Vancouver Games. That suit failed, but in 2011 the International Olympic Committee finally relented and gave women’s ski jumping the go-ahead. “It would have been easy to just walk away,” says Hendrickson. “They stayed strong and paved the way for me.”

And Hendrickson took full advantage, winning the world title last February with a 106-m jump. Ski jumpers descend an inrun in a crouched position at speeds exceeding 60 m.p.h. (95 km/h). Just before takeoff, they explode, leaning forward while keeping their skis in a V position a little more than shoulder-width apart during flight. Hendrickson is known as an efficient jumper. She wastes little motion.

Hendrickson’s Olympic dreams were jeopardized by a crash during a training run in August, in which she tore the anterior cruciate ligament, medial collateral ligament and meniscus in her right knee. “I cried for like five days straight,” she says. “It was just the fear of everything, to Sochi not happening, to my future, to financial things, all that was just coming down on me.” In conversation, Hendrickson’s soft voice and polite smile can hardly mask the intensity in her eyes. She has poured herself into her rehab and has nearly returned to her pre-injury strength levels. She’s on schedule to jump again in mid-January, and she knows she has to quickly regain her form to be a medalist in Sochi.

Hendrickson grew up in Park City, Utah, and started jumping at around the time of the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics, when she was 7. “Watching, I saw that the ultimate goal was flying a football field in the air,” she says. “That was pretty cool.” Her older brother Nick also jumped. “She was kind of calculated,” he says. “When you see a calculated little kid, they land everything.”

She took her first leap off the Olympic large hill when she was 12. “There were some tourists at the Utah Olympic Park, and you’d get some funny looks when you came to a stop,” she says. “You’d hear the comment ‘Oh, she’s a girl? How old are you?’ I’m small anyway. I probably looked around 9.” By the time she was 13, Hendrickson was traveling to Poland and Slovenia for competitions. “People thought I was seriously nuts,” says Hendrickson’s mother Nancy, an academic adviser at the University of Utah. “You’re putting Sarah on a plane? And she’s going where?”

Hendrickson grew up fast. “Sarah’s funny,” says her teammate Jerome. “The first time she went on a trip with us, we gave her such a hard time. She was a kid. But she was more momlike than any of us. She’d be like, ‘Jessica, your shirt has a stain on it. Will you take it off? I’ll go block that for you.’ “

Shut out of Vancouver, she and some teammates watched those Games in the basement of a hostel in Slovenia. “We were definitely bummed out,” Hendrickson says. “It’s really hard to pursue a sport like that, where there’s not really support, not really a future.” She toyed with switching to soccer full time. But once the Olympics were in reach, Hendrickson stuck with ski jumping.

In Sochi, another teen phenom, Japan’s Sara Takanashi, will be a gold favorite. The 17-year-old has already won a test event at the Olympic venue. Hendrickson knows her sport’s debut could have a lasting impact. “Hopefully, girls are like, ‘Yeah, I want to ski.'” she says. “Maybe they try ski jumping and don’t like it. That’s totally fine. Start soccer, or start any sport. Just get out there and know you have the opportunities. Just try it.”

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