February 19, 2015

FALUN, Sweden (AP) Sarah Hendrickson received a useful reminder when she was handed her bib after a ski jump qualifying round on Thursday.

Written on the front of it was: ''Nordic World Ski Champion.''

She earned that title in 2013 in Val di Fiemme, Italy, at a time when she and Japan's Sara Takanashi were in a league of their own in women's ski jumping. But as she prepares to defend it on Friday in Falun, Sweden, those days can seem long gone for the 20-year-old American.

''They handed it (the bib) to me today, and I can't believe I'm even world champion,'' said Hendrickson, a native of Salt Lake City. ''It's crazy. But it's been two years since that happened, and a lot has happened for me in those two years.''

The biggest thing being a serious knee injury that ruined her chances of also becoming the sport's first female Olympic champion. Hendrickson, who won 13 World Cup events between 2011-13, crashed in a training session less than six months before the Sochi Games, tearing the ACL and MCL off the bone, and damaging her meniscus.

After extensive surgery, she recovered in time to compete in Sochi, but was nowhere near her best and finished 21st. She has struggled this season as well - all the way up to this past weekend, when she earned two third-place finishes at a World Cup meet in Slovenia. It was the first time she had climbed the podium since her injury.

''I can't even explain how much of a confidence booster it was,'' Hendrickson said. ''I've had some rough competitions this year. I was 40th in one, and I haven't made the second round two times, which was the first time ever. Honestly, in January I was close to booking a ticket home, and just be done. I was emotionally drained.''

While Takanashi and World Cup leader Daniela Iraschko-Stolz are still considered the gold-medal favorites, Hendrickson suddenly finds herself thinking she has a real chance again.

''My goal is a medal tomorrow. That may be high expectations, but I train to win, and I train to walk away on top,'' she said. ''I believe in myself tomorrow, and that's what it has to come down to.''

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