She’s only 17 and just 151 cm tall, but schoolgirl ski jumper Sara Takanashi is already eyeing her second world title and could be set to make history at the Sochi Olympics.
Takanashi, who comes from a family of ski jumpers in Hokkaido, begins her World Cup defense 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 the shade.
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 NHK.
“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 kg — a little less than her own body weight — 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 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 in 1992.
Yamada, then aged 13, finished eighth and second-last in the junior category in the event in Sapporo. She jumped 59.5 meters and 57.5 meters.
“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 its historic high of five gold medals — including two for ski jumping — when it hosted the 1998 Nagano Games.
Since Nagano, when Takanashi was just a toddler, Japan has won only one Winter Olympics gold medal, through women’s figure skater Shizuka Arakawa at the Turin Games in 2006.
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 is shaping up to be the country’s best chance of success.
Takanashi was born in Kamikawa in Hokkaido’s hilly back country, 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 a bird.”
Takanashi started competing domestically at the senior level in 2009 and 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,” she said.
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 horizontally.
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 forward 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, as she easily retaining her summer Grand Prix 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 thus 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.”