Taylor Henrich carries weight of Canadian ski jumping on her shoulders
Increased funding created by success of 20-year-old athlete
Success has come at an early age for ski jumper Taylor Henrich, but with a federation starved for relevance, so has the heavy burden of being the sport's flag-bearer in Canada.
As a 19-year-old last season, the Calgary native became the first Canadian woman to capture a World Cup ski jumping medal when she finished third in Oberstdorf, Germany.
Her accomplishment led to another World Cup bronze medal, along with a fifth-place finish at the world championships in Falun, Sweden.
Henrich finished out of the top 10 in the World Cup standings, and was limited to only a handful of events due to a lacking of funding.
"Last year Ski Jumping Canada was not supported by any Own the Podium funding and had little in the way of sponsorship," Tom Reid, the federation's chairman, told CBCSports.ca.
However, Henrich's breakthrough season dramatically improved the landscape of Canadian women's ski jumping.
The 20-year-old was able to secure some personal sponsors, allowing her to compete at nearly every World Cup this season. She also became a carded athlete following her fifth-place showing at the world championships, receiving about $18,000 from Sport Canada.
Henrich's efforts did two more important things: she helped bump up Ski Jumping Canada's operational budget to $150,000 a year as the organization was able to raise more money. Her performance got the attention of Own the Podium, which chipped in another $50,000 for the season.
"What it did for the sport in Canada is got us an opening into Own the Podium funding," said Reid.
"One minute after she won the first bronze medal, I sent an email to Own the Podium detailing what Taylor had accomplished. About an hour later, I got an email back from Peter Judge, who heads up the winter side of Own the Podium and he said: 'I've scheduled you guys for a presentation in a couple of months to come in and talk to us.'
"Ultimately we were successful getting back on the Own the Podium program because she got these two World Cup bronze medals and it all started from that first one."
From a training perspective, Ski Jumping Canada received an indirect assist.
Calgary Olympic Park was able to keep its ski jumping facility operational after it received $300,000 per year over the next three years from a combination of private sponsors and the Canadian Olympic Foundation.
This gives ski jumpers like Henrich, Atsuko Tanaka and Jasmine Sepandj extended time to continue training at a world-class facility.
"That's very important moving forward," said Reid.
But with success comes more pressure, with most of it firmly placed on the shoulders of Henrich.
To this point, Canada's star jumper has yet to match her performance of a season ago. Henrich, who currently ranks 11th in the World Cup standings, placed 13th and 20th, respectively, at two World Cup events last weekend in Sapporo, Japan while battling a flu bug.
Her best effort this season has been a fifth-place finish in early December in Russia.
"She's put on some extra muscle and that's causing her to underperform. It's a problem that her and her coach [Gregor Linsig] are addressing," said Reid.
Henrich is also aware that more funding only comes with podium results, which is a lot to ask of an athlete who just turned 20 only two months ago. Ski jumping Canada will also present its case for next year's funding to Own the Podium in April.
"It is a lot of pressure. We're trying to keep the stress away from her but she has to know [it's on her]," said Reid. "She's a smart woman. She has to know that the pressure is on her."
Still, the future looks bright.
Henrich has proven she can compete with and succeed against the best ski jumpers in the world, including Japan's Sara Takanashi, and Austrian teammates Daniela Iraschko-Stolz and Jacqueline Seifriedsberger.
Takanashi is the standard. Only 19, she's already recorded a record 34 World Cup victories. With Takanashi and the 25-year-old Seifriedsberger, Henrich has the opportunity to take the sport to a higher level, one that could see the first Canadian female ski jumper standing on an Olympic podium.
"All of the same ladies who are competitive in the field now are going to be the athletes who are competitive for the 2018 Winter Games [in Pyeongchang, South Korea]," said Reid. "Taylor has shown she can pretty well beat all of them.
"Taylor's got the skill and the will and the training to do it."