Team USA’s Sarah Hendrickson was set for a showdown with Japan’s Sara Takanashi at the 2014 Sochi Olympics, but neither ski jumper performed at their best. Both were considered gold medal contenders, though neither landed on the podium.
Leading up to Sochi, Hendrickson categorized the Sarah-vs.-Sara rivalry as “friendly.” She added, “What [Takanashi] has accomplished is outstanding. It’s a good competition and it’s fun.”
Takanashi agreed on the nature of their relationship: “To me, [Hendrickson] is sort of an icon rather than a rival.”
Hendrickson, the 2013 world champion, tore her ACL and MCL six months prior to the start of the Sochi Games. However, she still made the team and was assigned bib No. 1, becoming the first woman to ever jump in Olympic ski jumping competition. Hendrickson placed 21st overall.
With Hendrickson out, Takanashi seemed poised to shine even brighter. She had finished second to Hendrickson at the 2013 World Championships. Instead, she ultimately finished fourth in Sochi.
To conclude their seasons, the 4-foot-11 Takanashi finished second on the World Cup circuit and Hendrickson finished eighth.
Neither ski jumper made the podium at the 2015 World Championships: Takanashi finished fourth, Hendrickson sixth.
The following season saw Hendrickson and Takanashi at the opposite ends of the spectrum. Hendrickson tore her ACL again in the summer of 2015 and sat out the season. Her mother quit her job to help support her recovery. Takanashi, on the other hand, won the overall 2015-16 World Cup title.
Hendrickson finished 23rd at the 2017 World Championships; at the time, she was managing ongoing knee pain which limited the time she could spend training. Takanashi won a bronze medal. She was stronger on the World Cup circuit, though, taking her second overall title while Hendrickson was 14th overall.
Despite Takanashi’s consistency – she has won four of the six World Cup women’s ski jumping titles ever awarded – she strugges at major competitions. She has yet to win a world championship gold medal, but is still considered an Olympic gold medal threat looking ahead to PyeongChang.
Takanashi’s teammate, Yuki Ito, is also in the conversation: She won silver medals at both the 2015 and 2017 World Championships, and finished second to Takanashi on the 2016-17 World Cup circuit.
When asked who her rivals were heading into PyeongChang, Hendrickson told NBCOlympics.com, “Sara Takanashi. She is so good at ski jumping and trying to catch up with her is very difficult.”
Hendrickson had sugery to clean up her knee in the early part of 2017 and should still be the U.S.’ top medal contender in PyeongChang. Teammate Nita Englund could join her in the hunt.