A gold medallist at the 2012 Winter Youth Olympic Games in Innsbruck and the winner of the second ever FIS Ski Jumping World Cup for women the following year, Sara Takanashi was full of optimism as she limbered up for the Olympic season. “I will work hard to climb up the podium and ride a good wave,” she told Japanese reporters as she set off for the opening event of the 2013-2014 campaign. “It will boost my confidence if I finish high.”
The 17-year-old champion did more than just make the podium, however, winning the first event of the season in Lillehammer (NOR) on 7 December and completing a double at Hinterzarten (GER) a fortnight later that took her to the top of the World Cup standings with a maximum 300 points.
Takanashi was born in the ski-jumping hotbed of Hokkaido, the northern Japanese island, whose biggest city, Sapporo, hosted the 1972 Olympic Winter Games. She was introduced to the sport by her father and older brother, both of whom were keen ski jumpers. “I found it was really fun when I jumped,” she recalled. “I enjoyed flying like a bird.”
At the age of 13 she made her debut in the FIS Continental Cup, the precursor to the World Cup, and two years later claimed the Winter Youth Olympic Games title. That was the prelude to a triumph in the Junior World Ski Championships in Turkey in February 2012, when she beat the hill record at Erzurum with a leap of 110.5m.
An inexorable rise
Takanashi’s ability to jump long distances was on occasion undermined by problems with the Telemark landing, which cost her valuable style marks, a failing she was determined to rectify. Once she mastered her landings she embarked on a formidable run, winning eight of the 16 competitions in the 2012-2013 World Cup season and making the podium 13 times to become the youngest ever winner of an overall FIS title at the age of only 16.
She followed up by taking silver in the women’s individual normal hill event at the 2013 World Championships in Val di Fiemme, behind the USA’s Sarah Hendrickson, and then winning gold in the mixed team normal hill competition with Ito Yuki, Ito Daiki and Takeuchi Taku.
In August and September 2013 she claimed her second consecutive FIS Ski Jumping Grand Prix crown, winning four of the six events held on artificial surfaces to take the title from France’s Coline Mattel.
Ahead of the new winter season she said: “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.”
Having ended 2013 unbeaten, Takanashi is rightly regarded as Japan’s brightest gold-medal prospect at Sochi. Fortune has not favoured the Asian nation since it amassed five golds at Nagano 1998, with only one more Olympic Winter Games title coming its way since then, courtesy of the figure skater Shizuka Arakawa at Turin 2006.
However, Takanashi is undaunted by the expectation levels: “I don’t think I can feel more pleasure than the moment when I manage to do my best jump while feeling pressure,” she revealed. “I don’t consider myself the champion. The level of women’s ski jumping has been really going up and I don’t want to miss the tide.”
In the months leading up to Sochi 2014, where both she and her sport will make their senior Olympic debut, Takanashi has maintained her fine streak of form, achieving four more World Cup victories and another two second-place finishes. By the end of January, she was already over 300 points clear of her nearest rival, marking her out firmly as one to watch when the curtains rise on the Olympic ski-jumping competition on 11 February.