A significant proportion of these young prodigies went on to shine brightly in Sochi. One such example is Greta Small, one of the great hopes of Australian Alpine skiing, who at just 18 competed in all five events at Rosa Khutor, finishing 15th in the super combined.
“The Youth Olympic Games were a special experience in my life; they really helped me,” she says. “The positive and negative experiences I had there changed my mindset in terms of Sochi and my career in general. If I hadn’t gone through the bad times, I would never have obtained the great results I’m enjoying at the moment.”
Japan’s Sara Takanashi is another young athlete who used the Youth Olympic Games as a springboard to success. At 15 years of age, she claimed a gold medal in the competition’s first event, the women’s ski jump. Like ski halfpipe and slopestyle, women’s ski jump appeared for the first time on the Olympic programme in Innsbruck, before making its Winter Olympic Games debut two years later in Sochi.
“I’m so happy,” exclaimed the talented teenager after her 2012 victory. “I’m very proud to obtain the first gold medal on offer here at the Youth Olympic Games. It’s an honour to be here and to win this event.”
Springboard to success
Following that success, Takanashi went from strength to strength, rising to the top of the world rankings, emerging victorious at three successive World Junior Championships, triumphing in the FIS World Cups of 2012-2013 and 2013-2014, and racking up 19 individual wins and 32 top-three finishes.
In Sochi, however, the odds-on favourite missed out on a podium spot, ending up in fourth spot. “I came here with the intention of doing my very best. I’m dreadfully disappointed to have not performed either jump as I’d intended,” she admitted. “I realised that I didn’t have enough mental strength. Deep down, I’m a fighter, though, and I’ll be back at the next Games even better than ever, determined to make my fans back home very proud.”
Russian figure skater Adelina Sotnikova, meanwhile, earned a silver medal in Innsbruck behind compatriot Elizaveta Tuktamysheva, after benefitting from invaluable advice from the then reigning Olympic champion and Winter YOG ambassador Yuna Kim. Sotnikova, who said at the time that the key to success was “all in the mind”, was already completely focused on the Sochi Games, and had resolved to use the two intervening years to make significant technical, physical and mental improvements.
On 20 February 2014, in front of an enraptured crowd in Sochi’s Iceberg Skating Palace, Sotnikova finished ahead of Kim to secure gold. “It’s a dream, an absolute dream!” she exclaimed. “The Games are being held in my own country and I’ve won a gold medal – it’s a very special feeling that I’ll remember for the rest of my life.”
Japanese snowboarder Taku Hiraoka was just 16 when he collected a bronze medal in the halfpipe in Innsbruck. He subsequently made his FIS Snowboard World Cup debut, clinched a silver at the 2013 FIS World Championships in Stoneham-et-Tewkesbury (CAN), and won a pre-Olympic halfpipe event staged in Sochi in February 2013.
One year later, Hiraoka was beaming with pride from the Olympic podium, after finishing third behind his 15-year-old countryman, Ayumu Hirano, and Swiss winner Iouri Podladtchikov, courtesy of a skilfully executed second run which enabled him to relegate American superstar Shaun White to fourth place. “All the hard work that I’d put in came through in my performance,” he explained. “I wasn’t nervous at all. It was fantastic!”
One athlete, ski jumper Andreas Wellinger, got his hands on gold in both Innsbruck and Sochi. On 21 January 2012, the German, assisted by compatriots Katharina Atlhaus and Tom Lubitz, triumphed in the mixed team event on the HS75 jump. Two years later, the 18-year-old played a key role in his country’s gold-winning display in the team large hill event at the RusSki Gorki Jumping Centre, where Germany held off the challenge of defending champions Austria.
“It’s incredible; we knew that it would be close with Austria and other good teams involved, but we fought so hard,” he said. “I don’t have the words to express what I feel.” The youthful medallist, whose elite career is only just getting started, also confirmed that the experience he had acquired in the Winter YOG was a crucial component in his achievements at Sochi 2014.
Giving youth a chance
It was not only Olympic competitors who were able to use Innsbruck 2012 as a stepping stone to progress. The feats of Adelina Sotnikova and Andreas Wellinger, the ascendancy of Sara Takanashi and the dreams of Greta Small were transmitted to a wider audience via modern audio-visual technology by around 20 young journalists, who were in Sochi as part of the IOC’s Young Reporters Programme.
Julia Vynokurova, who coordinated images for the RIA Novosti news agency at Sochi 2014, is candid about the role the Youth Olympic Games have played in her career. “It does sound a little bit clichéd to say that the experience was life-changing, but for me, it really is the case,” she explains. “Besides all the unbelievable opportunities and people I got to work with and learn from, I am particularly grateful to the programme for helping me to define my career path. I’m combining my two passions – photography and the Olympic Games!”