Ski jumping: Japanese teen
gets jump on Olympic history
She's only 17 and barely five feet tall, but schoolgirl
ski jumper Sara Takanashi is already eyeing her
second world title and could be set to make history
at the Sochi Winter Olympics.
Takanashi, who comes from a family of ski jumpers
in the snowy Japanese island of Hokkaido, begins
her World Cup defence this week after taking the
sport by storm last season.
Blessed with effortless technique honed alongside
her ski jumping brother and father, Takanashi won
eight out of 16 World Cup events to become the series'
youngest winner at age 16.
Her performances put American star Sarah Hendrickson,
winner of the inaugural World Cup series in 2011-2012
but out of sorts this year after knee surgery, in
And with Hendrickson, 19, again struggling with
injury, Takanashi has a strong chance of becoming
the first ever women's Olympic ski jumping champion
when the category debuts at the Sochi Games in February.
Far from being daunted by the Olympics where, presuming
she qualifies, she will be Japan's best gold medal
hope, Takanashi appears to revel in the pressure.
"I don't think I can feel more pleasure than
the moment when I manage to do my best jump while
feeling pressure," she told the public broadcaster,
"I want to do the best jump possible if I get
to stand on such a stage," she added, referring
to the Olympics.
Hendrickson will be absent when Takanashi begins
her World Cup defence in the Norwegian resort of
Lillehammer on Friday.
The American is recovering from a cruciate ligament
injury after a fall in August, and hopes to return
to competition by mid-January.
By contrast, Takanashi, who trains with squats and
jumps carrying weights of 40 kilos (99 pounds) -
a little less than her own bodyweight - said she
couldn't be in better condition.
"Around this time of the year, I used to have
something wrong with my legs or elsewhere. But I
have no such things this year," Takanashi told
Japanese media last week before leaving for a training
camp in Austria.
"It's not so much fun jumping without her,"
she added, referring to Hendrickson. "I have
learned a lot of things from her. To me, she is
a sort of icon rather than a rival."
'I don't consider myself champion'
Women's ski jumping has come a long way in Japan
since Izumi Yamada became the first female to compete
with the males in an official domestic competition
Yamada, then aged 13, finished eighth and second-last
in the junior category in the event in Sapporo,
on Hokkaido island. She jumped 59.5 metres and 57.5
"Those were the days when people would say
without hesitating, 'If a girl does ski jumping,
she can't have a child in the future,'" Yamada,
now a national team coach, recalled in the book
"Flying Girls" by Takaomi Matsubara.
Takanashi's emergence comes at a time of drought
for Japan at the Winter Olympics, since their historic
high of five gold medals - including two for ski
jumping - when they hosted the 1998 Nagano Games.
Since Nagano, when Takanashi was just a toddler,
Japan have won only one Winter Olympics gold medal,
through women's figure skater Shizuka Arakawa at
And in Sochi, with figure skater Mao Asada seen
as likely to struggle again against South Korea's
Kim Yu-Na, who beat her to Olympic gold in 2010,
Takanashi shapes as the country's best chance of
Takanashi was born in Kamikawa in Hokkaido's hilly
back country, which is also home to Masahiko Harada,
a successful men's ski jumper in the 1990s.
After growing up watching her father and older brother
take to the sky on skis, it was only natural that
she should follow suit.
"I started ski jumping because my brother did
it," Takanashi said in "Flying Girls".
"I found it was really fun when I jumped,"
said Takanashi, who also did ballet and learned
the piano as a child. "I enjoyed flying like
Takanashi started competing domestically at senior
level in 2009 and she made her international debut
in early 2011, finishing fifth at the world junior
nordic skiing championships.
Yamada attributed Takanashi's strength to her "simple
moves" in take-off which help her buoyancy.
"Sara is the simplest among the active competitors,"
Takanashi admits she still needs to master "telemark"
landings, in which the jumper touches down with
one foot in front of the other with arms spread
Hendrickson is skilled in this element, an important
advantage since the sport's scoring system is based
on style as well as distance.
"I lunged forwards too much at times in the
summer," Takanashi said. "I will try to
jump with great stability and accuracy."
Despite this flaw, her approach to the Olympic season
has been smooth, easily retaining her Grand Prix
summer jumping title contested on porcelain tracks
and plastic grass.
Now, with national enthusiasm for ski jumping at
levels not seen since Nagano, Takanashi remains
modest about her achievements so far.
"I don't consider myself champion," she
said. "The level of women's ski jumping has
been really going up. I don't want to miss the tide."