Sarah Hendrickson’s Historic and Risky Return to Ski Jumping
The 22-year-old Olympian is preparing to launch off an antique, currently defunct jump in New Hampshire to remind people of the sport's great, overlooked past
The first time Sarah Hendrickson clicked into bindings, she was a toddler in Plymouth, New Hampshire, learning to ski at Tenney Mountain. This December, the Olympic ski jumper returns to her family's home mountains to celebrate, and launch off of, one of the region's most iconic landmarks: the 80-year-old, 171-foot-high Nansen Ski Jump.
The 22-year-old started ski jumping in Park City, Utah, in 2002, won a World Championship in 2013, and, in 2014, became the first woman to ski jump in the Olympics, after recovering from a serious knee injury. In June 2015, her career came to a temporary standstill after she again tore her right ACL during a practice jump at Park City. After another knee surgery, more than a year of rehab, and what she calls “the hardest year of my life,” Hendrickson is returning to ski jumping this month. (The exact date of her jump depends on weather.)
Here's the rub: no one has used the Nansen Ski Jump since 1985 and no one will likely use it again after her. Here’s how Hendrickson is going to do it.
Rising above the pines of the northern White Mountains, the steel frame of Nansen serves as a prominent remnant of the vibrant ski-jumping culture that was first brought to the state by nineteenth-century Norwegian immigrants. The jump, nicknamed “the Sleeping Giant,” was built in 1936 and hosted the first Olympic ski-jumping trials two year later, according to Walter Nadeau of the Berlin and Coos County Historical Society. Over the next 50 years, the jump would host four national championships.
But as the sport evolved and the athletes became more skilled, competitors began out-jumping Nansen’s 312-foot-long landing hill. After several crashes—including one in which a jumper was paralyzed—competition at Nansen stopped, in 1985. Since then, the jump has been out of use and slowly deteriorating.
Why Sarah Hendrickson?
Over the past several years, the Nansen Ski Club has been working with the Bureau of Historic Sites to restore the jump and make the site a national landmark. Last year, a marketing manager from Red Bull saw an opportunity for Hendrickson (a Red Bull-sponsored athlete) to play a symbolic role in the restoration of the jump. “There’s a parallel,” Hendrickson says. “I’ve been off the radar for a while, I haven’t competed in a year, and I’ve been training my ass off to get back. And not just get back—to get back and win a medal in Korea,” the host of the 2018 Winter Olympics.
There's also her connection to New Hampshire: her parents were high-school sweethearts in the state, and her dad helped build a ski jump in Plymouth during his high-school ski-jumping years.
“The hill itself, by World Cup standards, is small,” says Rex Bell, a former U.S. Olympic ski jumping coach who trained on the Nansen jump decades ago. “In its day, it was a large hill, but as the sport has grown and developed, the hills have gotten bigger and bigger.”
Hendrickson is used to hitting a K-90 ski jump, the international standard. That means she'll face a few subtle but important differences. She's used to a mellower launch angle: -11 degrees versus Nansen's -7 degrees. This sharper incline on the take-off might give more of a kicker, shooting her higher than she’s used to. “It will be a little high-flying,” Hendrickson says. “But if we adjust for speed I shouldn’t go too far.”
Finally, there's the question of approach. The landing hill at Nansen is about 60 feet shorter than she’s used to, so Hendrickson will have to scrub speed accordingly. She hits a normal jump at approximately 54 miles per hour. Off the Nansen jump, she says she’ll launch between 47 to 49 mph. After adjusting for speed, she thinks she’ll probably fly between 210 to 250 feet. “I’m definitely not trying to set the hill record,” she says.
Red Bull is partially funding the jump’s restoration, which includes replacing the boards of the in-run and clear-cutting the overgrown landing area. Over the past year, Hendrickson has visited New Hampshire twice to make sure the jump’s frame is structurally sound and to talk logistics with her coaches and the project managers.
“Hills are pretty finely engineered. They’re groomed within millimeters,” Bell says about modern ski jumps. Bell noted that, in his mind, it’s unprecedented to have an athlete hit a ski jump that isn’t in accordance with international specifications. “When you have a hill that hasn’t been properly engineered, you never really know how it’s going to fly,” Bell says. “For someone whose coming off a knee injury and been out for quite a while, it’s not something I would necessarily recommend she does.”
Hendrickson isn’t nervous about hitting a jump that has been dormant for three decades, in part because of all the preparation that's gone into the stunt. In order to ensure her safety, Hendrickson says that her coaches and the Red Bull team are going to have an athlete of similar size and ability hit the jump before her. Depending on snowfall, the project managers may truck-in or make snow to polish the landing.
Hendrickson hopes to get in about 100 practice jumps elsewhere before she hits the Nansen in December. In October, she traveled to Slovenia to start training. She expects she’ll have about four World Cup events completed before the event in New Hampshire.
Throughout the next year, restoration of the jump site will be completed as the state tries to establish the national landmark. While Hendrickson will be the last skier to hit the Nansen jump, the grounds will become more accessible for future tourists and passersby interested in North Country history, says Ben Wilson, director of New Hampshire’s Bureau of Historic Sites. “I hope this restoration brings back a sense of pride to the community,” Wilson says.
And for Hendrickson, returning to New Hampshire is an opportunity to leverage her name as she returns to the sport and makes a push for the 2018 Olympics.
“I hope it re-excites [Milan] and that area,” she says. “I also want to show the United States that ski jumping is still around, that communities still care about it and look, we still have a girl that’s looking to win a medal in the next Olympics.”