Sara Takanashi studied ballet and piano when she was young, like many other young Japanese girls, but her life made a sharply different turn when she was eight years old and took a stab at ski jumping.
It was love at first flight.
“My big brother was a ski jumper, so I started,” Takanashi says in Flying Girls, a book on Japan’s pioneering women ski jumpers by Takaomi Matsubara.
“I remember feeling scared when I climbed to the top of the hill, and before I jumped ... but as I was in the air it got more and more fun. I could fly like a bird. That was great.”
The hill then was about five metres high and she flew maybe three metres. Now Takanashi, 17, has jumped as far as 141 metres and is a prime candidate to win the first Olympic gold medal in women’s ski jumping when it debuts as a formal discipline at Sochi.
The reigning World Cup champion, Takanashi powered undefeated through the 2013/14 season until early January, when she took third in a meet held at Russia’s Chaikovsky, although she still comfortably tops the field in terms of points.
Her top rival is 19-year-old US standout Sarah Hendrickson. Sidelined with an injury since August, she only started jumping again last month but has been named in the US team.
Japanese media attributed Takanashi’s loss in Russia to the way the jump platform is designed, noting that the platform at Sochi is similar. Takanashi herself said she had trouble with the timing for her take-offs.
“All I can do to get accustomed to [Sochi-type platforms] is to continue jumping again and again,” she told Japan’s Yomiuri Shimbun daily. “I don’t want to repeat the same mistakes.”
The slight Takanashi, who stands 4ft 9ins tall and reportedly weighs around 46kg, is a native of Kamikawa, a town on Japan’s northernmost island of Hokkaido where winter temperatures can drop below -20°C (4°F).
Isolated even by the standards of sparsely populated Hokkaido, Kamikawa was put on the map as a ski jump hub by Olympic gold medallist Masahiko Harada, who grew up there and jumped on youth teams with Takanashi’s father Hironari. A town of only 4,000, it boasts both 20 metre and 40 metre jumps.
Though Takanashi downplays her general athletic abilities, saying she is not especially quick at running and does poorly at sports involving balls, she quickly made a name for herself on the junior ski circuit, emerging as champion twice and taking gold at the Youth Olympics in 2012.
Soon after starting junior high school she was selected for the Japanese national team and began competing in senior-level events as well, where she became known for her mental strength.
“I think it’s because she doesn’t look that far ahead, she takes it meet by meet and gives each one her all,” her father was quoted as saying.
Takanashi’s steely emphasis on skiing above all else has included attending an international high school to improve her English, since so many meets and so much of her training takes place overseas.
In addition, to reduce distractions, within four months of entering high school she took and passed the high school equivalency exam, giving her the right to take university exams at any time without attending school.
Aside from getting used to Sochi-style jump platforms, her biggest task is improving her landings, for which she does weight training including squats while bearing some 40kg in weights, not that much less than her body weight.
“This year the Olympics will be a big topic, but first of all I want to achieve everything I can,” Takanashi told a Japanese TV station in December.
“Then if I do make it to the Olympics, I’ll be happy if I can repay everything I’ve gotten up to now, out of a spirit of gratitude.”
The ski jumping competition starts in a week’s time, but Takanashi is impatient to get going.
“I want to start the competitions as soon as possible,” Takanashi said Tuesday.
“Of course I hope I will get a gold medal. But before I get one I will have to work hard and there are a lot of things I have to do for that.”
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