Growing pains for U.S. women's ski jumping

At the start of the women's ski jumping competition Monday, the temperature was 12 degrees Fahrenheit (minus-11 degrees Celsius) at the Alpensia Ski Jumping Centre. U.S. skier Sarah Hendrickson placed 19th. Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Sports

Capricious winds on the hill where the second-ever Olympic women's ski jumping competition unfolded Monday prompted Pyeongchang 2018 organizers to keep changing the height of the bar where jumpers sit before sailing down the in-ramp. Speed was dampened, and technique proved to be the difference-maker.

In the end, the podium mirrored the current overall World Cup standings: Maren Lundby of Norway and Katharina Althaus of Germany took gold and silver medals, respectively. Japan's Sara Takanashi, one of the most consistent performers in the sport over the past seven seasons, won a bronze medal that helped ease the sting of being shut out in the surprising results at Sochi 2014.

Former world champion Sarah Hendrickson was the top American finisher, well outside hailing distance of the leaders in 19th place. Abby Ringquist was 29th of 30 women who made the final, and Nita Englund did not qualify for the second round. The results represented a backslide from the inaugural event in 2014, where the three U.S. jumpers finished 10th, 15th and 21st, and the finish line for a trying four years for the American women -- but there is the promise of more stability ahead.

The program underwent substantial organizational change in the months leading up to the Games, as USA Nordic, a nonprofit organization that supports ski jumping and Nordic combined athletes on the national and club levels, took over operation of the women's team and has closed the gap for such basics as travel expenses for World Cup events. Coaching and suit design resources are now shared with the men's team.

Those changes might have come too late to make an optimal impact on this Winter Games, but USA Nordic executive director Billy Demong, the 2010 Olympic gold medalist in Nordic combined, said the organization already has doubled the budget for the women's team next year and will refocus on development programs to get the talent pipeline flowing.

The fact that 23-year-old Hendrickson was in Pyeongchang at all was a tribute to outsized effort and tenacity. She has undergone four knee surgeries since Sochi and has waged an almost continual battle with physical pain and self-confidence in this perilous discipline.

Hendrickson missed huge chunks of training time and watched her boyfriend, Olympic freestyle skier Torin Yater-Wallace, who also is competing in Pyeongchang, fighting a life-threatening bacterial infection. At one point, the two of them were recovering together in the living room of her mother's home, her on a couch to prop up her repaired anterior cruciate ligament and him on an adjacent bed.

So yes, Hendrickson was happy to be there, but the same competitiveness that got her through those ordeals was the reason she wasn't going to be fully content with her day.

"It's definitely not what you dream about, but I have to walk away proud," she told reporters on-site.

"It was really difficult, not just in the past couple months but years and years of training. It comes down to one day. The Olympics for me is about representing my country, showing hard work and coming together with people from around the world. There are gold medals handed out, but you have to remember it's all for the love of sport."

Ardent supporters in Hendrickson's hometown of Park City, Utah, where the U.S. women's program took root and took flight after the 2002 Winter Games, gathered in the pre-dawn hours for a watch party. Among them was Lindsey Van, the 2009 world champion and Hendrickson's early mentor and 2014 Olympic teammate.

"It was good to watch, but super-intense, very stressful," Van said. "I was screaming, biting my lips. It looked pretty difficult. But those girls in the top five or six really distinguished themselves."

To a large extent, Hendrickson's fortunes have paralleled those of the team as a whole. As with many landmarks in international women's sports, a breakthrough does not necessarily guarantee continued momentum.

The nonprofit Women's Ski Jumping USA, which grew into a formidable force for change after its modest beginnings as a support group founded by parents and friends, struggled in the years after Sochi. When former Salt Lake City mayor Deedee Corradini died in 2015, WSJUSA lost a dedicated president, advocate and morale-builder. Several foundational athletes retired, including top Sochi finisher Jessica Jerome. Van, who was coaching a junior national team, parted ways with the organization a couple of years ago after a dispute over her handling of athletes on an overseas trip, and is now working for a real estate company in Park City.

Sponsorship for the women's team plummeted to the point that, heading into this Olympic season, the team's budget was a third of the roughly $500,000 it had in the Sochi lead-up. Athletes were forced to crowdfund for travel expenses. Even Hendrickson had to do without a stipend and depended on her fleet of individual sponsors.

Those hard times should be ameliorated by the organizational backing of USA Nordic, which also plans to take an active role in lobbying for the women to add large hill and team events to the Olympic program to achieve parity with the men. The advance is justified by the growth of women's ski jumping internationally, Demong said.

Women's Nordic combined -- the dual discipline of cross-country skiing and ski jumping -- will have its inaugural World Cup series in 2020 and its first world championship in 2021. The sport will press for inclusion in the 2022 Winter Games.

Whether the U.S. ski jumping team will continue on with either of its past world champions is yet to be determined. Van, who has been a vocal cheerleader on social media, said she will support the athletes in whatever way she can. Neither she nor Demong would close the door on a more direct role.

In Pyeongchang, Hendrickson told reporters she would make a decision on her future in the spring.

"I definitely need to take a break and reassess to find out if I want to continue with the sport," she said. "That is where I am standing right now. I cannot risk injuring my knee again if I want to live without pain."