ESPNHS honors 18 female teen athletes who are doing remarkable things on the field, in the classroom and in their communities. Click here to read about each of them.
Until April 2011, ski jumping was the only event off limits to women at the Olympics. After more than a decade-long battle with the International Olympics Committee, the top female ski jumpers finally broke the gender barrier, earning an invitation to take flight at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. History was made again when the International Ski Federation opened up another men-only event, the annual 33-year-old World Cup circuit, to the ladies for the 2011-12 season. This victory couldn't have been sweeter for 17-year-old Sarah Hendrickson, who won the debut World Cup in Norway last December.
Since jumping into the spotlight, the 5-foot-3, 95-pound flier from Park City, Utah, has stayed there, soaring to first place in six out of nine World Cup competitions. With 13 competitions total in the circuit, the Winter Sports School senior has already halfway secured the much-coveted overall World Cup title – and put down at least two hill records in the process. It looks like her elite competitors, including superstar teammate Lindsey Van (a 13-time U.S. national ski jump champion), have a long way to catch up. Hendrickson has a more than 200 point lead over the second top contender (Austria's Daniela Iraschko). As if that's not impressive enough, in between World Cup events, Hendrickson swung by the Junior World Championships in Turkey on Feb. 23 and nabbed a silver medal, making her the only American, male or female, to ever podium in this prestigious event.
"This winter, Sarah [has been] the strongest woman in ski jumping," said Paolo Bernardi, the coach of the U.S. team. "In individual sports like this, it's hard to find teammates who will cheer for you when they themselves are having a bad day, but everyone is super excited for Sarah."
No one is more excited than Hendrickson herself. She has been building up to this since age 7, when she followed her older brother Nick (now a U.S. Nordic combiner) onto the hill. Though she has been playing soccer for longer (since age 4) and continues to play left midfielder for Park City (Utah) (her own specialized sports school, which runs April through November to allow athletes to compete in the winter, doesn't have a soccer team), nothing compares to being on the hill -- or, better yet, in the air.
"Its a matter of staying relaxed," said Hendrickson, who listens to Taylor Swift to keep her nerves in check and take her mind off the swarming media, sponsors and crowds at these major events. "I'm just trying to focus on my next jump."
Hendickson often watches 30 jumpers go ahead of her in the second round after they reverse the order of lowest-to-highest ranked. If she keeps that in mind and how hard she's worked to get here -- "training six days a week, traveling around the world, and studying so hard in school" -- she could walk away with the first-ever overall World Cup champion title on March 9 at the finals in Norway, where the six-week tournament began.
"It's amazing how Sarah can manage the situation and how she thinks in a positive and professional way," Bernardi said. "She's not thinking 'I won four World Cups and I'm really good.' She's more like 'I won four World Cups and I'm happy but I need to focus and train hard to stay at this level.' This kind of attitude will take Sarah far in the future." The way she's racing down the in-run at 55 to 65 miles per hour, assuming the victorious V-formation with her short skis, keeping her arms close to her body and sticking the snowy landing at a record-breaking distances, she's sure to go far indeed.