Sara Takanashi: “From Kamikawa to the top of the world”
The streets of the small town of Kamikawa on the snowy Japanese island of Hokkaido are decorated with pink banners in support of one of its favourite daughters 17-year-old Sara Takanashi who is bidding to make Olympic history in the first ever women's ski-jump.
“From the town of Kamikawa to the top of the world,” some 300 banners declare along shopping streets in the town. Hundreds of pink flags with the name “SARA” on them are hung from windows.
The colour of pink has been chosen as "it looks fine in snow," according to one town official. “The whole town is painted pink,” joked Kamikawa's mayor, Yoshiji Sato, before leaving for Sochi to head a squad of supporters including Takanashi's family.
If the 17-year-old schoolgirl wins the inaugural event in Sochi on Tuesday, fireworks will shoot into the air above Kamikawa in celebration of her achievement, putting the hot-spring resort town on the map.
Takanashi, who rose to prominence at the inaugural Youth Olympic Games (YOG) in Innsbruck in 2012 where she won gold, has claimed 10 of 13 World Cups so far contested this season, and is regarded back home as Japan’s best gold medal prospect among the 113-strong Japanese delegation.
With figure skater Mao Asada, the baby-faced Takanashi, who stands just 152 centimetres tall, has become something of an Olympic poster girl for Japan.
Her emergence comes amid a Winter Olympic title drought for Japan, which hauled a historic high of five gold medals including two for ski jumping when it hosted the 1998 Winter Games in Nagano.
Since then, Japan has won only one gold through women's figure skater Shizuka Arakawa at Turin 2006.
A win for Takanashi could also help restore ski-jumping as the Asian country's main Winter Olympic sport and boost its profile in world sport ahead of the 2020 Summer Games in Tokyo.
“Sara's gold-medal chance is 100 percent. Haven't you seen her jump?" says a confident Masahiko Harada, who helped Japan win the large-hill ski-jumping team title in Nagano, and who also hails from Kamikawa.
Creating a local legacy
After growing up watching her father and older brother take to the sky on skis, it was only natural that Takanashi should follow suit at the age of eight.
“I found it was really fun when I jumped," Takanashi, who also did ballet and learned the piano as a child. “I enjoyed flying like a bird.”
Since the women's World Cup tour was launched in 2011, she has lifted a record 19 World Cups in three seasons eight in 2012-2013 when she won the overall title but finished runner-up to the USA’s Sarah Hendrickson at the World Championships.
Takanashi’s success looks set to help create a lasting legacy for future generations of local ski jumpers.
“I want to build a new jumping facility to help children follow Harada and Sara if the gold medal is won," the mayor of Kamikawa explained. “We are using a crude, small track now and have to repair it as we struggle to develop jumpers.”
He and his fellow citizens can be sure that Takanashi will be doing her best to inspire when she takes to the jump on Tuesday.
“On the Olympic stage, I will just demonstrate what I have been practising in training,” she said after the Opening Ceremony. “I want to make my best jump.”