Sarah Hendrickson is 18 years old, but she's already at the top of her sport. The top for her is probably a lot higher than it is for athletes because Hendrickson is a ski jumper. That's right, her sport is the one that makes us all say, "Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God," and clench our hands tight 'til we see her safely on the ground.
After returning from knee surgery in April 2012, Hendrickson hit the ground running—or perhaps flying makes more sense. She entered the world cup season with a shaky knee and new shorter skis. Then she won the World Championships two weeks ago.
How did you get started ski jumping?
I started ski jumping at the age of seven, mainly because my brother had been doing it for two years and I was sick of watching him. His name is Nick and he is a Nordic Combined athlete. I also started jumping the year of the Olympics in Salt Lake City (2002) and I went to watch the ski jumping event at Utah Olympic Park, so that also sparked my interest to get into the sport.
What's a day of training look like for you?
Usually a day of training includes a couple hours in the gym or jumping. Jumping includes anywhere from five to eight jumps. Gym strength includes a lot of lower body work such as squats and plyo-metrics.
For those who don't know anything about the sport, how do you jump so high without injuring yourself?
Ski jumpers are never actually that high off the ground so the impact isn't as intense as, say, freestyle skiing. However, we train our legs to be strong so that we can withstand the little impact that we do face when landing.
What can you compare the experience of ski jumping to for laypeople who might be too chicken to try it?
I have always said that ski jumping is incomparable to everything else in the world and that still stands. However, if I had to compare it, it's like holding your hand out the window in a car while going 60mph— except it's your whole body. That is what it feels like to fly on a ski jump.
What's your favorite place you've ever jumped?
My favorite place to ski jump is in Val Di Viemme, Italy. Not only is it my favorite hill but the scenery and food are just amazing. (I broke a hill record there during the 2012 World Cup season—108 meters. And this year I won the World Championships there.)
Obviously you have lots of experience, but what's it like going up against seasoned vets? Do nerves still get to you?
In ski jumping, the age is not really a factor but I always get nervous before competing. Those nerves are normal though so I just embrace them and learn how to manage them.
How do you feel about all the publicity and attention you receive?
In the United States, I hardly ever get recognized (which is great), but sometimes in the small towns in Europe I do. Obviously there has been an increase in media coverage, which is awesome for the sport but can be hard when all you want to do is train and prepare for the next competition.
What's your favorite thing to do when you're not jumping? Any other future careers post-jumping?
Recently I really like meeting new people that are interested in what I do. Therefore, as far as careers go, I would love to get involved with sports psych or a be personal trainer because I love to work out.
Who is your inspiration?
My brother Nick is my inspiration. He is so smart and works harder than anyone else I know, so I look up to him in every way possible. He is also one of my biggest supporters and I love having him around.
Are there any specific goals moving you forward?
I would obviously love to make the Olympic team in 2014, but anything can happen in the next 11 months. What moves me forward is my passion and love for ski jumping and showing up every day remembering why I work so hard.