Sarah Hendrickson jumping back in
PARK CITY, Utah -- Sarah Hendrickson folded her body comfortably into a chair in a conference room early last week, a half-pretzel position she couldn't have assumed for much of last fall, when the ligaments in her reconstructed right knee felt like resistance bands pulled to their limits.
The glassed-in windows overlook the vast, airy space of the gym at the U.S. Ski Team's Center for Excellence, a destination that has been both torturous and sanity-saving for the 19-year-old Hendrickson in her drive to get well soon enough for the Sochi Games. She has punched the clock here like a factory worker since September, logging six hours a day at first, now down to a mere three, trying to regain her strength and flexibility.
It's paying off so far. Last Friday, Dr. Andrew Cooper, the Salt Lake City-based orthopedic surgeon who mended her knee, cleared her to start a "jumping progression" -- simulations in a wind tunnel and a little skiing on baby hills, followed by a long-awaited takeoff from the 90-meter hill in roughly seven to 10 days.
"I couldn't find a reason not to let her do it," Cooper, the U.S. Ski Team physician, said by telephone. "She looks amazing -- her strength, her range of motion, her power numbers. I gave her a hug and looked her in the eye and told her to be honest with me and with her knee. She said she would."
Four months after surgery, the reigning world champion of ski jumping is at a point on the recovery curve where most athletes would be at six months, which surprised no one who has encountered the G-force of her personality. Even curled in a chair, she is not really at rest. Hendrickson was pleasant and considerate as she answered questions about her rehab, but days away from clicking into her bindings, suppressed vitality and impatience rolled off her like post-workout body heat.
"I don't think that many people have been in my position before?" Hendrickson said, her voice hitting a note at the end of the sentence that is both question and answer. "This is [the] first year for women's ski jumping, it's the event of the Olympics, I think, and sure, there's more Olympics in the future for us, but this is special and this is what I set my heart on."
Waiting until the next Games, she said, was "obviously not an option for me."
Pushing as hard as she did physically and front-loading as much hope as she has mentally carries some risk, even for an extraordinarily skilled risk-taker like Hendrickson. She won't be able to compete before Jan. 22, when the U.S. team will be named. U.S. coach Alan Alborn has gone on record saying she deserves to be on it based on talent and results -- a win and a second place in the overall World Cup standings in successive years leading up to her 2013 world championship -- if she's healthy enough. But Hendrickson wanted to earn her slot on the hill this season.
Then there is this: What if Hendrickson finds she can jump later this month, but not at her accustomed level?
Whenever uncertainty enters her head, Hendrickson said she summons three positive, declarative sentences to crowd it out, a technique she learned from one of two psychologists she's been working with to make sure her mindset is as sound as her legs. If thought can nudge action, she is determined to be a winning thinker as well, and she's had an abundance of time to do it.
"Right now my goal is to make Sochi," Hendrickson said. "Before, my goal was to win gold. That kind of changed, it really did. Obviously, I compete every day to win. But in the back of my head, I know it's one of the hardest tasks I'll ever have to do. Hopefully between the time I take my first jumps and the time I were to compete in Sochi -- if I make it -- I can make some changes and be up to the highest level I can be."
Hendrickson hit an injury trifecta when she crashed in training in August in Germany, tearing her anterior cruciate ligament and medial collateral ligament, as well as the meniscus in two places. The combined extent of the damage was uncommon for a jumper because Hendrickson lost control in the air, flew too far and landed on the flat instead of the incline.
Right now my goal is to make Sochi. Before, my goal was to win gold. That kind of changed, it really did. Obviously, I compete every day to win. But in the back of my head, I know it's one of the hardest tasks I'll ever have to do.Sarah Hendrickson
In a 2 ½-hour surgery, Cooper repaired Hendrickson's ACL with a hamstring graft and sewed up the MCL and meniscus. Cooper told Hendrickson that he wouldn't cut corners or do anything that might affect the long-term health of her knee. He also told her it was possible she could return in time for Sochi, although he admits now that seeing the depth of her desire, and knowing there were no guarantees, "gave me an ulcer."
Yet Cooper said he had reason to be optimistic, based on Hendrickson's age (faster healing), small stature (less stress in weight-bearing exercise), the nature of her sport (ski jumping lacks the twisting and torque of Alpine skiing) and her work ethic, which he had observed after a previous surgery. "If anyone on the planet can do it, it's Sarah," he said.
At the end of the surgery, Cooper used a technique called platelet-rich plasma therapy, commonly known as PRP, injecting platelets harvested and spun from Hendrickson's own blood back into the ruptured ligaments and meniscus in hopes of speeding the healing process. Then he prescribed -- and kept tabs on -- an aggressive course of physical therapy. The difficulty inherent in the accelerated process was apparent from the start. As Hendrickson left her first follow-up appointment, she accidentally caught her right leg on a rug and screamed.
"The first two weeks after surgery were beyond painful," Hendrickson said. "I totally pushed Sochi out of my mind, pushed jumping out of my mind. All I wanted to do was be able to sleep for more than two hours at a time and walk again. So many people hurt their ACL, it's a popular injury, but you never hear how painful post-surgery is. I guess I'm glad I didn't know, because it just would have scared me more. It was brutal."
For days on end, Hendrickson sat upright on a table, tears streaming as her physical therapist applied pressure to her leg, trying to straighten it. Then she went about regaining her range of motion and the weight and muscle whittled away by inactivity, stress and pain medication. In November, she began noting her milestones on social media: the day her knee came 2 degrees from maximum flexion, the day she began back squats, the day she began running on an anti-gravity treadmill. Friends and fans responded, and that fed her motivation.
"She's done absolutely everything we've asked of her and everything she could," said Michael Naperalsky, the strength coach who works with U.S. Nordic athletes.
But there were still times that flattened Hendrickson. In mid-November, she took the lift to the top of the 90-meter hill at Utah Olympic Park for a magazine photo shoot. She gazed down at the pristine track where her teammates would jump on snow the next day for the first time that season, and anger jolted through her. She was the woman who had everything -- corporate sponsors, media queued up to talk to her, an entourage doing everything possible to get her back on skis -- but at that moment, all she wanted was clearance for takeoff. "I just lost it, started crying," she said.
Last week, Hendrickson was a spectator at the U.S. Olympic trials where Jessica Jerome outjumped Lindsey Van to lock up her trip to Sochi. The festive Park City crowd included many who have watched Hendrickson since she was a bean of a girl, and everyone wanted to know about the knee and her chances. Hendrickson had to work at swallowing her frustration. "It's out of love, and people just care about me," she said. "I tried to keep calm and appreciate that I have so many supporters."
Hendrickson has the benefit of having completed a successful rehab before, in 2012, when she was idled for six months by microfracture knee surgery to repair ligaments. The first day she jumped, she said it felt as if she'd taken just a week off. "Your muscle memory is amazing and your brain is amazing, and it's like you never stopped," she said. "So I'm hoping that happens again."
As he did then, Alborn has said he will know whether Hendrickson is ready after her first few jumps.
Will she know? "Yes," she said firmly. Then she paused.
"I hope. It's kind of weird to think about. It could be a disaster. Not in the way that I could hurt my knee again, but I could be not Sarah. I'm trying not to think about that. I can tell Alan believes in me and Alan thinks I'll be ready and I just have to go with that."
Her true emotions may have been inadvertently revealed by a typo in a tweet. Hendrickson took a key step in her comeback last month when she began doing imitation lifts, the ski-jumping-specific dry-land training maneuver in which an athlete crouches on a stool or chair, then leaps into another person's waiting arms to mimic the explosive takeoff from the in-run ramp.
"First ski jumping immolation today -- I can almost taste the ski jump I am so close," Hendrickson posted on her Twitter feed on Dec. 16.
"It got good response," she said last week. "A bunch of people re-tweeted it, and then I read it again and I was like, 'That's not the right word ... Well, people kind of got what I was saying, so I'm not going to delete it. Whatever.' " She let out a big, unfettered laugh. "Probably just sounded like an idiot," she said.
Hardly. It's obvious Hendrickson would like nothing better than to figuratively set fire to the hill.