Sarah Hendrickson’s victory Friday at the ski jumping world championships made for an emotional victory high in the Italian mountains that seemed like something even a Hollywood scriptwriter might not offer up for fear it would seem, well, not real.
But it really happened.
Hendrickson is just 18. She out-jumped Japan’s Sara Takanashi in a thrilling duel to win the 2013 worlds.
On the jumps in the narrow Italian valley where her coach grew up. The jumps the coach’s father helped build. At the championships the coach’s mother was so excited to have here — except that she passed away, unexpectedly, just a couple weeks ago.
So Sarah went out and won the contest — for herself, of course, and her mom, dad and brother, who were there watching, and the entire U.S. team, cheering her on, and of course, her coach, Paolo Bernardi, who as it happens is one of the world’s nicest guys and, obviously, a first-rate coach.
Jessica Jerome of the United States finished sixth.
Five jumpers, including Jerome, hit jumps of 100 meters or longer, and what was abundantly plain Friday — this could have been seen two years ago at the world championships in Oslo but for many got lost that day in the fog — was that women’s ski jumping doesn’t have to prove anything to anyone any more.
It’s just one more winter-sports discipline, with depth and talent. The big fight before the Vancouver Games over whether it belongs — that’s yesterday’s news. Next February in Sochi, it will make its Olympic debut.
What that means is there are already better stories in women’s ski jumping than the issue of ski jumping itself.
Among them: Sarah Hendrickson. Sara Takanashi. And Paolo Bernardi.
Hendrickson’s victory makes for the second significant U.S. teen victory in just a few days at a winter world championship. Mikaela Shiffrin, 17, won the slalom title at the alpine world championships last week in Austria.
Sarah Hendrickson is from Park City, Utah. She grew up on the 2002 Olympic jumps there. She is the 2012 World Cup season champion.
Sara Takanashi is already the 2013 World Cup season winner; she clinched that title last weekend in Slovenia.
Bernardi is from Predazzo, Italy. That’s the little spot where the ski jumping potion of the Nordic world championships is being held this week — on the very ramps his dad literally helped construct.
Three years ago, at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, Bernardi was a ski tech for the U.S. Nordic combined team. What that means, in plain English, is that he waxed skis. That was his job.
It happened after Vancouver that he was hired to become the U.S. women’s ski jumping coach. He has not only helped develop their ski jump talent, he has developed a culture within the team of trust and confidence.
Because Predazzo is home, Predazzo has become something of a second home for the U.S. team. They go there to train. They know the hill. They like the hill. At last year’s World Cup, a two-day event, Hendrickson won both days — and on the second jump on second day, she jumped way out there, 108 meters.
Last month, as the women’s tour was in Japan, Bernardi’s mother, Gina, passed away.
He left the tour and — this is how it is — some foreign-tour coaches stepped in to help the U.S. athletes. He rejoined the team at the stop in Ljubno, Slovenia.
Before her first jump Friday, even though she knew the hill well, Hendrickson would say afterward, “My heart was beating and everything was shaking.”
Why? Probably because it was the worlds. And because Takanashi had whomped the field in Ljubno and that coming into the worlds she — Hendrickson — “definitely had doubts.”
Then it all settled down and, on her first jump, she rocked it for 106 meters.
Takanashi jumped 104.5.
“The first jump is important for me mentally,” Hendrickson said. “If I have a good first jump, I know I can have a good second jump. If I have a hard first jump, sometimes I mentally shut it down, so it was really important for me.”
On their second jump, both went 103. “I had to stay strong and do my jump regardless of what the results were after the first round,” Hendrickson said.
With style points, Takanashi finished at 251.
Hendrickson — 253.7.
Jacqueline Seifriedsberger of Austria took third, with 237.2.
“This is hometown for Paolo — born and raised,” Hendrickson said. “His dad built these ski jumps. I’ve had an amazing relationship for the past two years he’s been coaching. To share this with him in his hometown is awesome. No words need to be exchanged. Just hugs and happiness.”
“When we all went out to celebrate with Sarah, we were pretty much all crying.” Jerome said. “I think that as a team we do really, really well together.”
There’s a traditional champagne toast in the U.S. team hotel after a gold medal. At the one late Friday, Paolo Bernardi took note of everything, his dad, his mom, the jumps, what Sarah Hendrickson had done, and then he said it was the most important day of his life.
And then he popped the champagne.
It happened, really, just like that.