Sarah Hendrickson flew into history Saturday by winning the inaugural women's ski jumping World Cup on the Olympic hill in Lillehammer, Norway, sailing down a trail that older athletes blazed for her. The victory for the 17-year-old from Park City, Utah, was especially sweet for the U.S. team, one of the groups that took the lead in the long and ultimately successful fight to include the discipline for women on the Olympic calendar.
This season, the women have their own International Ski Federation (FIS) sanctioned World Cup events after toiling for years on the lower-key, lower-tier Continental Cup circuit. The first event of 14 parachuted the women directly into Norway, the cradle of the sport. They jumped before a crowd of 3,000 under a novel format that alternated women's and men's rounds. The entire two hours of competition was televised live in Europe by numerous national networks and Eurosport.
Altogether, it was a significant upgrade from the past. The 5-foot-3 Hendrickson, who was born the year the Olympics were held in Lillehammer, was only too happy to absorb the bigger buzz.
"I kept saying, this feels like World Championships," Hendrickson said by phone from Norway. "Then I keep thinking, we have 13 more World Cups just in the season. It's a great feeling to have all that there throughout the whole year, not just [at worlds] every two years."
Hendrickson has uncommon composure for someone her age, a trait that came in handy over the weekend when she became a popular interview subject. The day after her win, she was invited to join longtime Eurosport commentator David Goldstrom to offer her analysis on the men's big hill competition.
"She's amazing, the fact that she's managing the situation that's moving around her in the last three days in a super-professional way," said U.S. coach Paolo Bernardi. "Just 17, and she's more professional than most of the older athletes I've met in my career."
Hendrickson's grounding starts at home, where she tries to have as normal a social life as possible given her unearthly skills. She got on skis at age 2 and began jumping at 7 (the ideal age, when kids are both fearless and ultra-flexible), prompted by her dad, a jumper in his high school days, and older brother.
But Hendrickson also loves soccer -- she's a left-footed midfielder -- and continues to play for her high school and club teams.
"I always kind of thought about going to college and playing soccer, but with the inclusion in the Olympics and getting World Cup, I think I've decided essentially to stay with ski jumping," she said.
Bernardi has come out to watch some of Hendrickson's soccer matches and admits the possibility of injury makes him nervous, but he said that's outweighed by his belief that she "needs to be happy and enjoy life ... when she's on the road, she gives 100 percent."
Hendrickson's jump distances of 100.5 and 95.5 meters were comparable to the top men's, and so is her technique, according to Bernardi. And it's not as if she's come out of nowhere. Last year, she became the first American, male or female, to medal at the Junior World Championships, taking a bronze.
Still, she said she surprised even herself with her performance.
"In official training the day before the event, I had the two longest jumps out of anybody," Hendrickson said. "It's actually kind of hard going into a competition knowing you've had the best training jumps. People are kind of looking at you continuing that into the competition."
She might have to get used to that.