The Sochi Olympic Games could not have been timed better for 17-year-old women’s ski jumper Sara Takanashi.
In the first Olympics in which women will jump for medals, Takanashi is firmly established as the best in her field. Coming off her first overall World Cup title last season, Takanashi won eight of this season’s first nine events.
“The only thing I’m afraid of is illness or injury,” coach Takahiro Ogawa said.
Foreign coaches, too, have remarked on the difficulty of defeating Japan’s wunderkind, saying their skiers will need a lot of luck to beat her in her current form.
After winning all four of this season’s World Cup jumps in Japan, Takanashi left for Europe on Wednesday, where she has a busy schedule ahead of Sochi. In between World Cup stops in Slovenia and Austria, Takanashi will seek her third consecutive world junior championship in Italy.
“I want to improve my form,” said Takanashi, who will compete in six events over a span of nine days. “I still have things to do and I want to concentrate on each event one by one.”
Takanashi, who made her first jump in her second year of elementary school, became a force on the World Cup circuit last season with booming jumps that made up for her difficulties in style, particularly the prescribed Telemark landing.
At the world championships, her in-flight posture cost her crucial points from judges and the individual gold medal, when American Sarah Hendrickson surpassed her by a mere 2.7 points.
This season, however, two things have changed in the World Cup landscape. Takanashi has gotten much better at her Telemark landings and Hendrickson has missed the first part of the season after having knee surgery last August.
Hendrickson, however, appears to have made a spectacular recovery and has resumed jumping.
“The feeling of that first jump back was one of the best sensations in the entire world,” the Los Angeles Times quoted her as saying in its Jan. 21 online edition. “All my nerves simply disappeared. My knee feels very good considering the situation.”
Hendrickson’s return adds some spice to the mix at Sochi. Whether she will be fit enough to recover her sparkling form and rain on what being forecast as a Takanashi victory parade remains to be seen.
“It motivates me more that a familiar face is back on the scene,” Takanashi said of her rival’s return. “I’ll be really happy to compete with her. I just want to give my best.”
Two other rivals could also steal the show at Sochi, Germany’s Carina Vogt and Russia’s Irina Avvakumova, who are second and third, respectively, in the World Cup standings. In addition to getting a boost from competing for the host nation, Avvakumova has the distinction of being the only woman other than Takanashi to post a Cup victory this season, when she took first on Jan. 4 at Chaikovsky, Russia.
Competing in the Olympics, however, brings a different kind of pressure from the World Cup circuit that Takanashi now reigns over.
Other than the last world championships, when Takanashi finished second, perhaps the most pressure she has faced came when jumping before local fans last season in Sapporo.
Cruising toward the World Cup title, Takanashi finished 12th and fifth in two competitions in trying conditions before her disappointed fans. Although she denied feeling pressure, she admitted that something was amiss.
This year, however, Takanashi returned a conquering hero, winning the opening day at Sapporo by nearly 14 points and following that with a 17.3-point victory margin.
When the women’s individual competition takes place at Sochi on Feb. 11, she and her Japan teammates Yuki Ito, who is sixth in the World Cup standings, Yurina Yamada will be jumping into history.
But being the favorite for the first women’s ski jumping gold medal does not seem to faze Takanashi.
“I’m extremely happy that people are taking notice,” she said.
Hendrickson leads U.S.
New York AP
Five months ago, American ski jumper Sarah Hendrickson crashed in a training session, tearing the ACL and MCL off the bone, along with damaging 80 percent of her meniscus.
No way to be back in time for the Sochi Games, right?
Turns out, Hendrickson’s a very fast healer.
The 19-year-old from Park City, Utah, had surgery to repair her right knee on Aug. 29, returned to jumping on Jan. 11 and was named to the U.S. team earlier this week along with Lindsey Van and Jessica Jerome also made the squad.
“It’s a miracle, kind of,” Hendrickson said of her quick return. “You never know how your body is going to react to that. Luckily, my body responded well. I was able to get strength back and everything working again.”