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Noriaki ‘The Legend’ Kasai heads to eighth games seeking gold

by Shintaro Kano

Kyodo

When a 19-year-old Noriaki Kasai competed at the Winter Olympics for the first time, Kiichi Miyazawa was Japanese Prime Minister, Bill Clinton was campaigning to become the United States president and Michael Jordan was the NBA’s Most Valuable Player.

Over the 26 years since the 1992 Albertville Games, Kasai has managed to carve out a place of his own in the world of ski jumping, drawing praise at home and overseas for his unparalleled longevity.

Starting with the normal hill qualifying on Thursday, the day before the Pyeongchang Games officially open, Kasai, who turns 46 in June, is set to make a record eighth Winter Olympic appearance.

Known as “The Legend” to his peers and fans, Kasai will be Japan’s flag bearer at the opening ceremony after serving as captain of the country’s delegation at the 2014 Sochi Olympics where he cemented his legacy with a silver on the large hill and bronze in the team event.

With seven Olympic Games under his belt, Kasai was at ease upon arriving in Pyeongchang, back into his element, on Monday.

“It’s an amazing record,” he said of his eighth trip to the Olympics. “I’m really excited. My goal is the same every time, and it’s to win a gold medal.”

While Kasai is all smiles now, he admits he was pressed in trying to make the team for an eighth time.

Although he started to pick things up last month, placing an individual event season-high fifth at the World Cup on Jan. 13 in Bad Mitterndorf, Austria, the veteran from Hokkaido struggled for much of the season, otherwise failing to finish higher than 10th.

During one stretch, from Dec. 16 to Jan. 6, Kasai placed in the 40s in four out of five events.

“I put a lot of pressure on myself, trying to make the team for an eighth time and wanting to break the record,” he said. “I am improving slowly but surely and if I stay focused on improving my form, I’ll be that much closer to a medal.”

“I’m exhausted from thinking too much. There’s no point in thinking about it, so I’m just trying not to overthink.”

Kasai may well be in the pantheon of ski jumping, celebrated by the sport’s fraternity around the world — the Austrian Ski Federation held an event attended by 600 guests last month in his honor -— but not all has been smooth sailing during his storied career.

In Nagano in 1998, his one chance to compete at a home Olympics, Kasai was left out of the team event and the individual large hill after finishing seventh in the normal hill.

The omission left him in ruins. But he rose from the depths of despair after the World Cup resumed that March, posting his first victory in four seasons and reaching the podium two other times.

From there, Kasai has gone on to appear in four more Olympics including Sochi, where he became the oldest ski jumper to win a medal at the Winter Games at the age of 41. He will take 17 World Cup wins and 63 podium finishes into Pyeongchang.

For all of his accomplishments, there is one box that Kasai wants to tick in Pyeongchang: win a gold medal in front of his family.

Kasai proposed to his wife during the Sochi Games, and the two had a daughter in January 2016. He would love nothing more than to top the podium in front of his 2-year-old child.

“I’ll do everything I can to try to meet all the expectations,” Kasai said. “I want to make sure I have no regrets at these Olympics.

“The medal I don’t have is a gold; that’s what I’ll be aiming for this time. I want my daughter to see me win a medal with her very own eyes.”