Coline Mattel

Sarah Hendrickson's flying feat

There are those select few who willingly strap skis to their feet and throw themselves off jumps and into the air. They fly and they say it's the greatest feeling in the world. Until Saturday, there had never been a World Cup event at which those few sanctioned to do so had been female.

Now that event is history, and the books will forever say that the winner of the first World Cup ski jump -- on the same hill in Lillehammer, Norway, used by the men at the 1994 Winter Games -- was a 17-year-old American. Her name is Sarah Hendrickson. She didn't just win. She won big. She flew long and strong.

"There's nothing else you can ever imagine," she said afterward in a telephone interview. "There's nothing else in the world that can compare. There's not one time you don't have that wonderful feeling. You love the sport. And flying through the air is what you train for every day.

"When I jump, I forget about everything that's around me."

Sarah's first jump Saturday was 100.5 meters, seven-and-a-half meters longer than anyone else; her second was 95.5, again well out in front. She scored 277 points for the win. Coline Mattel of France took second with 247.7 points, Melanie Faisst of Germany third with 245.5

Nearly 50 jumpers from 15 nations competed Saturday; this first-ever women's jump World Cup tour includes 14 events at nine venues in seven countries. The women have been jumping on the lower-level Continental Cup for seven years. They are due to make their Olympic début at the 2014 Sochi Games.

It is way too soon to be forecasting Olympic prospects for Sarah, or for anyone else. Even so, her development is a classic study in exactly what American officials said would happen as a result of the 2002 Games in Salt Lake City.

She was born in Salt Lake and raised in Park City, 35 minutes up Interstate 80, where many of the alpine and the jumping events of those 2002 Games were held.

Sarah has been on skis since she was 2. Her older brother, Nick, who is now 20, is on the U.S. Nordic combined team. "Jump far lil sis!" he posted Saturday to his Twitter account.

In 2002, during the Salt Lake Games, the locals' access to what is now Utah Olympic Park in Park City was naturally closed down, Sarah remembers. There were some small hills at the Canyons Resort and, she said, "I started [jumping] because I saw my brother doing it."

She said, "You start out using your alpine skis. Gradually, you switch to jumping skis. I haven't stopped since."

In 2010, Sarah became the only American -- male or female -- to win a medal in a junior world ski jumping championship, winning bronze.

This week, it was clear Sarah was the strongest in the women's field. On Friday, she was first in both training rounds and had the longest jump of the day, 98 meters.

The issue Saturday, really, was whether she could hold it together mentally.

As it turned out -- no problem.

"Today she was unbeatable," the U.S. women's coach, Paolo Bernardi, said. "At the moment she looks like a dominator. She is mentally two, three steps ahead of everybody else. She is in the zone."

She's only 17. You'd never know it.

"At the U.S. team, we have been training for quite a few years now," Sarah said. "We train for competition. Once you get to the jumping level of training, you have to train like you're competing. Ski jumping is a huge, huge, huge mental game. That's a huge part of it.

"What helps me is just relaxing and always thinking that I have more opportunities to come. If a particular jump works out -- awesome. If one doesn't work out, ok, I have another opportunity."

This first World Cup opportunity, though, forever marks Sarah as something special. "It's a nice history what is going on: Sarah is the perfect player, the perfect actor, for the viewers at home," Bernardi said.

Sarah said of winning: "It's fun." She laughed. "For sure."

Jumping for joy, finally

LONDON -- Sometimes long, hard fights take a long, long time. And when you win, it's that much sweeter.

That's how it was Wednesday for advocates of women's ski jumping. For years, they tried to get into the Winter Olympic Games. For years, they met mostly with resistance and heartache and frustration.

On Wednesday they knew elation.

The International Olympic Committee's policy-making executive board approved women's ski jumping, along with four other new events, for the Winter Games in Sochi in 2014.

""I’ve dedicated my life, hopes and dreams to ski jumping and I’m thrilled that our sport will be showcased at the 2014 Olympic Winter Games in Sochi," American Lindsey Van, the 26-year-old 2009 world champion, said. "We are ready.

"For our sport this means a huge step in the right direction. Women's ski jumping has been developing a lot over the past 10 years, but the Olympics is what our sport really needed to take the next step."

Coline Mattel of France, a 2011 world championships bronze medalist, said, "The fact that women's ski jumping has finally been recognized rewards all the girls that have been fighting for such a long time, and gives me the motivation to work even harder."

The other four events also added to the Sochi program: ski halfpipe, biathlon mixed relay and team events in luge and figure skating. The figure skating event is not, IOC sports director Christophe Dubi hastened to add, a synchronized swimming-style event; one skater will follow the other on the ice.

IOC President Jacques Rogge called the additions "exciting, entertaining events that perfectly complement the existing events on the sports program, bring added appeal and increase the number of women participating at the Games.''

Bill Marolt, the president and chief executive of the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Assn., said, "This is a special day. The IOC's decision to include women's ski jumping and halfpipe skiing marks a truly progressive era in the Olympic sports movement.

"Today is the beginning of a chapter in the history books that will showcase these great athletes' talent and dedication on the world's stage in 2014 and beyond."

The IOC put off for a couple of months consideration of proposals for inclusion of slopestyle events in snowboard and freestyle skiing and in team alpine skiing.

The lengthy process by which women's ski jumping finally made the program shows in revealing detail how the IOC truly moves.

For one, the IOC absolutely, positively refuses to move until it is ready to do so.

Moreover, it does not like being told by outsiders what it should be doing, or that it should be moving for reasons of political correctness, or being compelled to move by the threat of legal action.

None of those things typically occasion the desired response -- not even the whole court case thing.

In 2006 the IOC turned down a women's ski jumping event for the 2010 Vancouver Games. The jumpers took their case all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada, but lost, the court saying it wasn't its place to tell the IOC what to do -- which was what the IOC knew all along was what would happen.

The IOC was never against women ski jumpers. Just the opposite. It's in the IOC's interest to have more women at the Games -- as Rogge observed in welcoming the women jumpers.

After all, ski jumping -- and, now, Nordic combined -- were the only disciplines in the Winter Games that did not allow women to take part. No matter what anyone might think, that's not what the IOC is about anymore.

All along, the IOC wasn't simply being patronizing or paternalistic. After all, Joan Benoit ran that marathon in Los Angeles a long, long time ago.

The IOC kept saying to the jumpers --  show us that there are more of you, from more countries, and that you're better at this, and we'll let you into the Games and we'll do it with big smiles all around.

In 2006, according a release put out Wednesday by the advocacy group Women's Ski Jumping USA, 83 women from 14 nations were registered to compete on the FIS Continental Cup. In 2010: 182 from 18 nations.

In 2009, according to that same release, 36 jumpers -- from 13 nations -- took part in the world championships, held in Liberec, Czech Republic.

This year's world championships were held in Oslo, before a crowd of some 10,000 people, and in super-crummy weather that tested fan and athlete alike. There were 43 jumpers from 15 countries; five of the six top finishers were from different countries and ranged in age from 14 to 27.

"You have much more quality and depth," Dubi said. "If you compare to Liberec back in 2009, you had a handful of top jumpers. Now you have 30 jumpers who would jump between 80 and 97 meters."

Dubi was asked point-blank if the IOC needed to see something big like that in Oslo for the jumpers to make it. Yes, he said: "It was really critical. And what we've seen there is extremely positive."

As for Nordic combined? "Well, obviously, for Nordic combined there is not yet the universality and the numbers to consider it [for women] an Olympic sport," Rogge said at a Wednesday evening news conference.

He added a moment later that if time shows better quality and quantity in participation in women's Nordic combined events -- then the IOC will bring it on board, too.

He said, "You need the numbers … you  need more competition, you need more international participation and hopefully I would say the example of women's ski jumping will serve as a catalyst for that sport, too."

The athletes themselves, finally, had reason Wednesday to jump for joy. Here was another American, Alissa Johnson: "This inspires me to continue training hard to be the absolute best athlete that I can be, so that when I have my chance at the Games I can finally fight for the gold medal I have been dreaming of since I was five."