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No Fear: Six Knee Surgeries Couldn't Stop USA's Sarah Hendrickson from Returning to Ski Jumping

Sarah Hendrickson should be one of America's star athletes, but after several knee surgeries, she's just trying to see her way through the PyeongChang games.

PYEONGCHANG, South Korea – Ski jumping is largely about delaying the end: gain speed, take off, hang in the air as long as you can. When Sarah Hendrickson got to the bottom of the hill here Monday night, maybe for the last time in an Olympics, she knew she would not win a medal. She stopped expecting a medal long ago. Her triumph was delaying the end.

Hendrickson should be one of the American stars of these Olympics. She was the best in the world five years ago, at age 18, and America loves a smart, attractive woman who is able to fly. I admit there is not a lot of evidence for this. But we love smart, attractive people, and the whole flying thing does not seem like a deal-breaker.

Now Hendrickson is 23 but her knees are pushing 50. She has had six knee surgeries. If you’re a sports fan, you’ve heard this song before. Derrick Rose can tell you her story. Gale Sayers can feel her pain. But take a moment and appreciate Sarah Hendrickson. There ought to be a podium for people like this.

She has been an ambassador for her sport, selling it long before she had a product to sell. Men’s ski jumping has been part of the Winter Olympics since the winter games debuted in 1924, but for 90 years there was no women’s event. Hendrickson and others pushed for their place in the Games.

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To understand why, just watch her come down that hill. Who does this? With some Olympic sports, it’s easy to understand how people got into it. Anybody who ever tried skating would like to skate really fast. Curling is a sport for people who just don’t get to do enough sweeping at home, and the luge is an extraordinarily efficient way to avoid creditors.

But ski jumping … well, Hendrickson probably explained it best in September, at the U.S.O.C. media summit:

“The girls who look up at the jump and say, ‘That’s what I want to do,’ those are the ones who you have to pay attention to. At no point should you convince a kid, boy or girl, that they have to do this. They have to look up there and want to do it. If there is fear at that first sight, then it’s not for them.”

Hendrickson was one of those kids who said, “That’s what I want to do.” And she was damn, damn great at it. During the sport’s first World Cup season, in 2012, she was not just the best in the world. She was the best in the world by a wide margin. She won nine of 13 events. That summer, she had knee surgery, but she came back to win the world championship the next year.

Women’s ski jumping was added to the Olympics in in 2014, and Hendrickson was the favorite to win the first Olympic gold. Then, in August 2013, she tore her ACL and MCL. The Sochi Olympics were just six months away. She competed anyway. She is one of those kids.

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Hendrickson was assigned bib No. 1, making her the first female Olympic ski jumper ever. She would have preferred to finish No. 1. She finished 21st instead.

She was only 19. She had time to regain her old form. But the next year, she tore her ACL again. She has had four knee surgeries since Sochi. She said it was even harder to make this Olympic team than to make the one in Sochi, but she did it. She is still trying to reconcile the difference between her best jumps now and her best jumps five years ago. She described her performance here as “Two pretty mediocre jumps for me, but it’s the best I’ve done all season.”

Most of us would have retired long ago. But most of us would not look up at a ski jump and say: That’s what I want to do.

“There is just this passion that you have,” she said. “There was just no (thought) in my mind that I was done.”

She has those thoughts now. At some point, it doesn’t make sense to go on.

“I’m not sure about the future,” Hendrickson said. “I will stay for the rest of the Games and go to two more World Cups in Germany and kind of reassess my future.”

Hendrickson is most looking forward to freestyle skiing; her boyfriend, Torin Yater-Wallace, is a medal contender. They started dating shortly after the Sochi Olympics. At one point, in 2015, Hendrickson was rehabbing after one of her knee surgeries and Yater-Wallace was recovering from a life-threatening infection in his liver and gall bladder, and this was the romantic version of her Olympic career: not what she envisioned, but oddly wonderful anyway.

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“It was a really tough time when he was sick and I was recovering from another ACL injury,” she said. “But that was like the longest time we got to spend together. To have somebody that understands and that gets you and just … I don’t know, supports you through that really hard time, is amazing.”

She said Monday that Yater-Wallace did not give her any special words of encouragement Monday. There was no need.

“We just have that common language,” she said. “We don’t need to say anything to each other. That’s what he’s taught me. It doesn’t really matter what result you get. It’s that your boyfriend or girlfriend is happy at the end of the day. So he is always proud of me regardless of what I do, and vice versa. That’s amazing to have at the bottom of the hill.”