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

From ESPN - February 12, 2018

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 was not 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."

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