For the American women's ski jumping team, just getting to Sochi is a huge accomplishment. The sport is making its Olympic debut Tuesday, in large part because of a decade of advocacy from jumpers Lindsey Van and Jessica Jerome. And for their teammate Sarah Hendrickson, simply being able to put on her skis and fly (even if it isn't as far as usual) is a minor miracle following a devastating knee injury in August.
By the time competition begins, Hendrickson will have taken 25 jumps on her newly reconstructed knee; compare that with more than 200 jumps for the other competitors. And most of Hendrickson's jumps have been at slower speeds, gingerly testing the strength of her knee while trying not to re-injure it. Before the injury she was a favorite to win a medal. Now, she's the ultimate underdog, with the shortest jumps of the whole field in practice this week.
"My coach is reminding me that it's a miracle that I'm even here, considering my injury, so I kind of have to step back and appreciate that, and know that if I don't walk away with a medal, it's still an accomplishment representing Team USA here," Hendrickson said after a recent training jump.
She was clearly disappointed with her results but said her coach was holding her back so she didn't hurt herself ahead of the competition. Her teammates express nothing but admiration for Hendrickson's effort to return.
"Now her biggest thing is just going to be to stay confident and know that she can have good jumps, and to have those good jumps," said Jerome.
Lindsey Van, who has come back from many injuries of her own over a 20-year ski jumping career, described what Hendrickson has just gone through as the hardest part of being an athlete. There's no fun in rehabbing an injury, she said all of the work but with none of the fun of the sport.
"If you can dig yourself out of the depression hole that injury just made you, then you can do anything," said Van. "It's like going to work but actually just staring at your computer. And that's not comfortable."
For years, Van was the public face of the fight to get women's ski jumping into the Olympics. Although jumping for men has been in the games since the very first Winter Olympics, this will be the first time women have jumped. Van says she heard so many excuses over the years including that the women's sport wasn't developed enough, and that women's bodies couldn't handle it.
"I had people ask me if my uterus had fallen out," said Van. And that comment, she said, came in 2009.
As she spoke to reporters after a practice jump, Van seemed relaxed.
"It's the first time in a long time where I can feel like l'm actually in the present moment. I'm not talking about the Olympics. I'm not talking about coming here. I'm not talking about the past," said Van. "And honestly, I feel a lot more relief than I thought I would. It's just, there's nothing to wait for anymore. I'm here, and it feels good."