Evergreen Kasai holds back time
Aged 45, Japanese ski jumper Noriaki Kasai is about to make a record eighth Olympic Winter Games appearance. As ambitious as ever, the veteran Kasai will be on the hunt for medals in the two individual events, as well as passing on his wealth of experience to his compatriots in the team competition.
A starter in 537 individual World Cup events since 1988, with 79 podium finishes and 17 wins to his name, Kasai has also appeared at 11 FIS World Championships since making his competition debut in Lahti (FIN) in 1989, taking part in 42 events to date (25 individual, 17 team) and collecting seven medals.
Still going strong in 2018, the ageless Japanese ski jumper began his lengthy Olympic career at Albertville 1992 and enjoyed his most successful Winter Games to date at Sochi 2014, winning an individual large hill silver and a team bronze.
When he steps out at PyeongChang, he will set a new Winter Games longevity record. And it won’t be the first time he has set a new benchmark. The 20-year gap between the team silver he won at Lillehammer 1994 and his two podiums in Sochi is the longest in Winter Games history, while the individual silver he won in Russia made him the oldest Olympic medallist in his sport.
Coping with the pressure
Born on 6 June 1972 in Shimokawa, on the northern island of Hokkaido – which hosted the Winter Games that same year in Sapporo – the record-breaking Kasai was delighted to be on the HS109 hill in Alpensia for the first training runs on Thursday 8 February.
As he reveals, the chance to become the first athlete in history to make eight Winter Games appearances was something that weighed heavily on his mind in the lead-up to PyeongChang: “I was aware that it would be a new record and it put an awful lot of pressure on me. But I managed to do it in the end.”
Despite his relatively advanced years, Kasai has no fears about competing against athletes half his age: “After Sochi, I had a pretty tight schedule outside the competitions. Yet even though I was missing training I was still getting pretty good results, which proved to me that if I trained a bit more I could become competitive again.”
Despite his vast experience, Kasai, who won his Lillehammer 1994 team silver in the company of team-mates and opponents who have long since stopped competing, admitted to feeling a little tense when training got under way at Alpensia.
“I was pretty nervous and I wasn’t feeling that great after my first couple of jumps,” he explains. “I tried to pull out my best jump on my third attempt and I managed it, which allowed me to relax.”
Kasai’s day ended with him qualifying with plenty to spare for the individual normal hill competition on Saturday 10 February; his jump of 98m ranking him 20th out of the 57 starters.
A World Cup legend
The Japanese jumper came close to his long-standing career goal at Sochi 2014, where Poland’s Kamil Stoch beat him to large hill gold by a narrow margin. “It’s what I want more than anything: to win an Olympic gold medal,” says Kasai, still hungry for victory.
He has shown that ambition in the seasons leading up to PyeongChang 2018. In scoring a 17th career victory on the HS142 hill in Ruka (FIN) on 29 November 2014, he became the oldest ever winner of an FIS Ski Jumping World Cup event at the age of 42.
The following year in Falun (SWE), he won a World Championship mixed team bronze with the 19-year-old Sara Takanashi, Yuki Ito and Taku Takeuchi.
The 2015/16 season saw Kasai rack up seven top-three finishes in the World Cup, and on 12 March 2016 he stepped out for the 500th ski jumping event of his remarkable career.
“I’ve been competing in the World Cup since I was 16, which means it’s been 27 years now,” he said on reaching that landmark. “When I turned 40 my intention was to carry on until I was 50. Five hundred is a great number but my favourite is six. I want to make it to 600. This is just a stepping stone on the way there.”
Kasai maintained his sparkling form in the 2016/17 campaign, one in which he jumped out to 239.5m and 241.5m on the HS225 ski flying hill in Vikersund (NOR) to finish just behind reigning two-time Olympic champion Stoch at the new Raw Air event on 19 March 2017.
At the final event of the season, in Planica (SLO) seven days later, he placed third to post the 63rd individual podium finish of his career, at the age of 44.
His 18th top-three finish in team competitions came in Ruka (FIN) in the countdown to PyeongChang, when he joined forces with Takeuchi, Ryoyu Kobayachi and Junshiro Kobayashi – all of them born in the 90s – to finish behind Germany and Norway.
“My continuing goal is to win gold in PyeongChang and I want to do it in front of my family,” says Kasai. “I’m thinking of going on until I’m 50, though my home town of Sapporo is considering a bid for the 2026 Winter Games. I’ll be 54 then, but it’s a huge opportunity and I don’t want to pass it up.”