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Sochi, Russia • Pressure and nerves are two things that always have been difficult for ski jumper Sarah Hendrickson to handle, even more than the immense physical challenge of speeding down a steep hill and launching herself into vast, empty space.
But she figures she won't have to deal much with either at the Sochi Olympics.
In the hours before the Opening Ceremony Friday, the reigning world champion from Park City said that the knee injury she suffered nearly six months ago the one that nearly kept her from reaching her dream has relieved the pressure on her to win a gold medal in the first women's ski-jumping competition ever held at the Olympics.
"I'm kind of the underdog now," she said. "Where I was reigning world champion, now people have no idea what to expect."
Most observers still expect the 19-year-old to challenge top rival Sara Takanashi, the two-time defending World Cup champion from Japan, presuming her knee doesn't give her any problems. Hendrickson hasn't competed in nearly a year, and returned to jumping on snow less than four weeks ago.
But her doctors say her knee is ready, and Hendrickson said she's as strong as she has ever been because of the six hours a day she spent in rehab and recovery at the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association's Center of Excellence in Park City.
"My knee is still five months out of surgery and I knew it would react a little bit" to the stress of training again, she said. "But it's actually done pretty well. I'm confident in what I've done with it, and I'm confident in what I can do here in Sochi."
Hendrickson was speaking at a press conference alongside Lindsey Van and Jessica Jerome, teammates and longtime friends from Park City who led the long fight to get women's ski jumping admitted into the Olympics.
"We've waited a long time to be here," Van said. "I can't wait to show everybody our sport."
Van is a former world champion, and Jerome won a trials event at the Utah Olympic Park in December to become the first American woman ever to qualify for the Olympics. But neither has quite the same gold medal chance as Hendrickson, who beat Takanashi for the world title last year and might be even stronger if she believes there is no pressure on her.
"I don't want to say that is an excuse," she said, "but for me, my goal was to make it to Sochi and I've already accomplished that goal.
"So I want to go into competition just excited to be here and excited that I worked so hard be here. … If I weren't to have this injury, I would have tons of pressure on me. That's how I look at it. Just go with it and have fun instead of being so concerned about the pressure."
The women faced lots of questions about their historic appearance in the Olympics, which comes only after years of lobbying and even a failed lawsuit before the 2010 Vancouver Olympics.
"I can't stress enough how we just couldn't be happier to be here," Jerome said.
Hendrickson said she's lucky to be trying to return to a sport in which her surgically repaired knee she suffered two torn ligaments and a torn meniscus in a training crash in August won't face quite the same demands as it might in others.
"Yes, of course you need your knee," she said, "but you don't have the torque on your knee like you do on, say, a downhill skier. You do use a lot of power off the takeoff, and you have to trust that the knee is strong enough and the muscles around it have strengthened after your injury. And then, of course, it impacts the landing, but it's not close to as intense as other sports like freestyle skiing or Alpine skiing."
Then, it was off to the Opening Ceremony.
"I've been dreaming of this day for many, many years," Hendrickson said. "And when times would get rough in the gym or I'm having a bad day, that's what I try to think about and that's what keeps me working hard every day."