Paolo Bernardi

Sarah Hendrickson's Italian fairy-tale victory

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.

Hendrickson consults with U.S. coach Paolo Bernardi at the 2013 ski jumping championships // photo courtesy Sarah Brunson and  U.S. Ski Team

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.

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."