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'I felt like giving up': Olympians open up on coming back from injury

Feb. 5, 2014 at 3:29 PM ET

Olympians Hendrickson, Mancuso, Vonn weigh in on what it's like to compete after injury.
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Olympians Hendrickson, Mancuso, Vonn weigh in on what it's like to compete after injury.

As star skier Lindsey Vonn has learned and many other Olympians have experienced, recovering from a significant injury to compete among the world’s elite can be a daunting task.

Even the threat of injury can be enough for athletes to change their plans. Star snowboarder Shaun White announced Wednesday that he will not be competing in the slopestyle event debuting in Sochi, citing the risk of injury on the course as his reason for bowing out. White jammed his wrist on a practice run on Tuesday and has experienced other nagging injuries. 

For world champion ski jumper Sarah Hendrickson, 19, a devastating right knee injury in August nearly derailed her bid to make it to Sochi for the first women’s Olympic ski jumping competition.

“I cried for five days straight after my injury,’’ Hendrickson told TODAY.com. “I was worried that all of my dreams were crashing and that I’d lose support and sponsorship. Even after a very successful surgery, there were days in the gym that I was in pain or I didn’t see the progress I wanted, and I felt like giving up.”

Video: White made the surprising announcement to not compete in slopestyle just one day before the Games are set to begin, citing risk of injury. NBC’s Keir Simmons reports.

Hendrickson, the reigning world champion, fought through the mental and physical challenges to qualify for a spot in Sochi, where she hopes to make history as the first women’s gold medalist in ski jumping.

“What got me through those incredibly challenging times was my love of the sport, belief that I could actually do this and the many, many people who have been there with me every step of the way, from my family and friends to my doctors, physical therapists, teammates, coaches, and sponsors,’’ she said. “They all helped me get to this point. We did this together.”

Look Like an Olympian: Sarah Hendrickson shares her secrets

For Hendrickson, who suffered ligament damage to her knee during a crash in August, the short amount of time she had to recover meant she could have missed making it to the Games.

“It was so sad to think I might miss out on being in Sochi with my teammates, especially Lindsey Van and Jessica Jerome, the leaders who pushed to get our sport in the Games,’’ she said. “It's about not giving up on your dreams, but I knew that if that didn't happen, then I would be the first in line to be cheering on my team. I just wanted to be there no matter what.”

Hendrickson also learned some valuable lessons along the way: "Never give up on your dreams, and things always happen for a reason."

Video: Alpine skier Julia Mancuso talks to Matt Lauer about her Olympic dream and getting ready to hit the slopes in the Games.

Julia Mancuso, who has more Olympic medals than any female U.S. skier in history, radically adjusted her training regimen ahead of Sochi to combat nagging injuries.

“I mostly just changed my training and learned to pay more attention to my body,’’ Mancuso told TODAY.com. “Since then I've just been training smarter, and spending more time doing physical training and rehab. As a more mature athlete, it's just quality more than quantity over when you're younger. I've been able to listen to myself more."

Mancuso incorporated surfing, stand-up paddle boarding, free diving and neurokinetic Pilates while training in Maui during the offseason from her World Cup skiing schedule.

“When other girls were on vacation, Julia was focused on getting better so she could compete again,’’ physical therapist Alejandra Monsalve, who did three hours of Pilates with Mancuso each day, told TODAY.com. “It was a lot of hard work."

Mancuso has also realized her limits when it comes to injuries that can be overcome, and now knows when trying to fight through the pain could end up causing more damage. 

"You definitely have to figure out what the problem really is and it depends from there,'' she said. "There are some injuries that you can't really power through, and there are some that you can figure out the best way to make it better. It depends on how many races you want to get through, too. You have to really figure out if it's stable."

Video: The skier and TODAY Olympic correspondent reveals what it takes to raise an Olympian and how parents play an influential role.

Vonn knows that all too well, as she withdrew her bid for a spot in Sochi due to complications while trying to recover from major surgery on her right knee. She has since joined TODAY's Olympic coverage to give her insight into the Games, and told TODAY's Matt Lauer she is committed to "racing through to the next Olympics" in South Korea.

"I’ve been injured the last two years now and having people around you who love you and care about you no matter what, whether you win or lose, that’s what kind of keeps you going,” Vonn told TODAY on Wednesday. She says she's leaned on her mom, Lindy Lund, for support during challenging times.

“You can't always win, so you have to work through that and there will always be another race,” Lund said.

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