Born in Salt Lake City, Sarah Hendrickson spent most of her childhood in beautiful Park City, Utah. No other city could have given Hendrickson a better start to her athletic career as she took to the slopes at the age of two, learning to ski in the outdoor sports haven that is Park City.
But it was at the age of five when Hendrickson would begin to discover what is now her life’s passion. While she was still zigzagging down Park City’s surrounding slopes, Hendrickson’s older brother had taken up ski jumping with Hendrickson as a frequent observer, watching her brother learn how to soar through the air. After two years, Hendrickson soon got bored standing by and decided to take up the sport herself when she turned seven, which was also at a time when ski jumping was gradually gaining popularity among women.
“Honestly, it’s the feeling that you’re flying,” answers Hendrickson when asked why she has always loved ski jumping so much. “There aren’t a lot of people who can say they’ve flown across an area the size of a football field. The speed, the adrenaline, the wind in your face…I’ve always loved that feeling because it’s just so amazing, and so cool.”
Seeing the Olympics come to Salt Lake City, however, sealed Hendrickson’s decision to take up professional ski jumping full-time. “I watched all these men compete and grew more and more intrigued,” she recalls. “It’s a sport that’s very unique and not too popular, [and watching] the Olympics really motivated me to pursue ski jumping at a high level.”
A few years later, Hendrickson began traveling the world when she was 12, competing on the international circuit against other women, many of whom were much older than she was. But that didn’t stop Hendrickson from winning the 2009 Continental Cup in Poland when she was 15, a competition that was considered a World Cup championship for women’s ski jumping at the time since the sport hadn’t yet been accepted into the Olympics.
Then in 2011, things began to change for women’s ski jumping. On April 6th, 2011, the Olympic Committee officially declared women’s ski jumping an Olympic sport, ending years of frustration as women ski jumpers fought for their right to compete at the Winter Olympics. Not only would women ski jumpers compete in Sochi 2014, they would also have their own official World Cup championships, much to Hendrickson’s delight.
“Ski jumping was one of the original Winter Olympic sports, but it was always considered a man’s sport because back then, women didn’t take up ski jumping and there just weren’t enough girls competing,” explains Hendrickson. “Sometime during the 90s, women’s ski jumping started gaining prominence and more girls were trying it out.”
“It took a lot of fighting to get us officially accepted in the Olympics, with a few athletes going to court in Vancouver to try and get them to let us compete. We don’t know the sole reason why [the Olympic Committee] eventually made women’s ski jumping official, but I do think it reflects on how times are changing, especially when it comes to attitudes on women’s sports.”
Now, at the age of 18, Hendrickson has won a total of 13 World Cup titles all over the globe, including in Japan, Norway, and more European countries. She may be the youngest on the U.S. women’s ski jumping team, but there is no doubt that Hendrickson is one of the most successful women’s ski jumpers in the world.
Of course, all the competitions and busy training schedules come with their own challenges. In order to balance her life as an elite professional athlete and a student, Hendrickson attended the Winter Sports School in Park City, a public school designed specifically to fit the needs of other students who have long decided to make professional winter sports their calling. Whereas most high school systems stretch from September to June, the Winter Sports School runs from April to November during the off season for most winter sports. For Hendrickson, the school worked wonders, allowing her to still lead a high school life while training extensively for every new ski jumping season.
“I was able to go to school and receive the high school education that I wanted,” says Hendrickson. “And because the school was set up so that it ran in the off season, I was able to also do things like play on the high school soccer team during that time. I loved everything [about the school], and I was a hundred percent into everything I did.”
Hendrickson graduated from the Winter Sports School last November and is now taking a break from her studies to focus on ski jumping. Especially with the Winter Olympics in sight, it has been hard at times for Hendrickson to combine the life of an 18-year-old with that of an elite international athlete, a fact she willingly admits.
“I’d definitely say the biggest challenge is finding the balance between school, traveling, training, and all the things you love because a lot of the time, you just don’t have time for them. But you do the best you can.”
Sometimes, doing the best has also entailed staying tough and staying positive, as other challenges have popped up that Hendrickson has had to face down.
“Last year, I had knee surgery and needed to fight that injury through the rest of the season and through the off season a bit,” recalls Hendrickson. “But in those situations, you have to recover and come back stronger than ever. After fighting through something like that, you definitely become more confident.”
For now, Hendrickson is out of school and competing heavily on the international circuit, though the ski jumper has stated that she wants to eventually return to school once she’s done with ski jumping. In the meantime, Hendrickson focuses on competing and staying healthy, even during the off season. When she isn’t busy doing both, Hendrickson is promoting women’s ski jumping and encouraging more girls to participate, something that will only become easier with her recent naming to Team Kellogg’s.
“[The Kellogg Company] takes a lot of pride in their products, and it’s really great to be on the team,” says Hendrickson. “It’s important to have companies pick up the popularity of sports, especially a lesser-known sport like women’s ski jumping.”
But even though Hendrickson’s schedule is constantly packed with training, competitions, and press conferences, she somehow manages to find the time to do what she loves. That in itself is an important lesson she wants to share with collegiettes: the fact that you can find time to do everything you want.
“Don’t think that you won’t be able to do everything that you would love to do. There’s always a way to make time for friends and things you really enjoy, even if it doesn’t always seem that way. Don’t ever quit anything because you think you won’t have time for it.”