SOCHI, RUSSIA – Former world champion Sarah Hendrickson admitted Friday that she looks up to rival Sara Takanashi, the overwhelming favorite to win the inaugural Olympic women’s ski jump title.
Hendrickson comes into the Olympics having only recently returned to action after tearing knee ligaments in a fall last August.
During her absence, the 17-year-old Takanashi has won 10 rounds in defense of her World Cup title and is regarded as virtually untouchable in the women’s event where the gold will be decided on Tuesday.
“I really look up to Sara. She’s a tough competitor and an amazing athlete,” the American said.
“Her results say it all. She gets tons of media pressure, but everyday she just brushes it off and goes out and jumps.
“I have watched from the outside. She is jumping incredibly well. But I have to focus on my technique and only concern myself with things I can control.”
Hendrickson, the 2013 world champion, has only been jumping again since January 11, after having surgery to repair her knee.
She said that the injury resulted in 80 percent of her meniscus being torn and that once her rehabilitation was over, she needed to work six hours a day to build up her strength.
The first test of that stamina, as well as of Takanashi’s form, will come on the normal hill at Rosa Khutor on Saturday afternoon when training begins.
Despite her five months out, Hendrickson is focused on the positives of her return and believes all the pressure will now be on Takanashi.
“I used to struggle with my nerves in the past, but the injury has relieved some of the expectation,” she said.
“I used to be the world champion, but this year my goal was just to make Sochi and I did it. If there was no injury there would be tons of pressure on me.”
When the women take to the hill on Saturday, it will mark the end of a long road to get their sport accepted into the Olympics.
It had not gone unnoticed that while snowboarding, in 1998, and freestyle, in 1992, were welcomed into the Olympics, female ski jumpers were left out in the cold despite the long tradition of their discipline.
In the end, they had to take their struggles to the courts, finally winning a legal place at the Olympics even if their domestic ruling body refused to come on board.
There was also outright prejudice with International Ski Federation (FIS) president Gian Franco Kasper declaring in 2005: “It seems not to be appropriate for ladies (to ski jump) from a medical point of view.”
Jessica Jerome, who makes up the three-member U.S. women’s team with Hendrickson and former world champion Lindsey Van, insists they deserve their spot in Sochi.
“There is an elegance and beauty to the sport,” said Jerome, the first of the three women to ensure her place at the Games and who dreams of full equality when women jumpers will, like the men, tackle the big hill and team events.
“We have a foot in the door. I am glad that the extreme sports got into the Games but they didn’t have the struggles we have. It’s all about baby steps.”