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Japan’s 2012 Winter Youth Olympic Games champion Sara Takanashi has started the 2016/17 International Ski Federation (FIS) Ski Jumping World Cup in perfect fashion by claiming victory in the opening two rounds of the season. The 20-year-old began the defence of her overall World Cup title by winning both events in Lillehammer – host city of the 1994 Olympic Winter Games and the 2016 Winter YOG – on 2 and 3 December.
In the first event, Takanashi led home a Japanese one-two, clinching top spot with jumps of 95m and 99.5m to finish in front of team-mate Yuki Ito, with a total score of 271.3 points. The following day, she leapt 95.5m and 98m to score 268.1 points, which again put her ahead of Ito, who finished in the silver medal position with 255.4.
"It is the start of a new season and I was able to perform very good jumps and achieve a great result," said Takanashi. "I am very happy about that. The level of ladies' ski jumping is getting higher and higher, so I also have to get better. We still have great events coming up this season, like the World Championships, and I need to stay focused."
Takanashi’s victories took her overall World Cup win tally to 46 at the age of just 20; and it seems the Japanese star has been destined for greatness ever since she first strapped on a pair of skis.
Having taken up the sport at the age of eight – “because my friends and my brother were also doing it” – Takanashi entered her first international competition as a 12-year-old, and was quickly hailed as a prodigy.
At 14, she finished sixth in the 2011 World Championships in Oslo before making her World Cup debut later that year, claiming fifth position in Lillehammer and then winning silver in her next event at Hinterzarten, Germany.
But it was at the 2012 Winter YOG in Innsbruck that Takanashi’s career really took off. The 15-year-old dominated the competition at the inaugural Winter YOG, as women’s ski jumping made its Olympic debut, leaping 76.5m in the opening round – five metres further than any other competitor – to give herself a 14-point lead going into the final jump.
She jumped the exact same distance in the final round, earning a further 54.5 points from the judges to give her a total of 269.3 – an incredible 26.8 points ahead of Germany’s Katharina Althaus, who jumped 71.0m and 72.5m to take second place. The bronze medal was won by Ursa Bogataj, of Slovenia, who twice jumped 71.5m to finish with 239.3 points.
“I’m so happy,” said Takanashi at the time. "I am very proud to win the first Youth Olympic gold medal for women's ski jumping here. It's an honour to come here and win this event."
Flying high following her YOG victory, Takanashi went on to 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.
A first World Cup victory then followed in March 2012 in Zao, Japan, and she has not looked back since. In the subsequent 69 World Cup events, Takanashi has claimed a further 45 victories, making her by far the most dominant athlete in the sport.
She was widely expected to win gold at the Olympic Winter Games Sochi 2014, but ended up finishing fourth as she struggled to cope with her nerves.
"I came here wanting to do my best. I’m incredibly disappointed I couldn’t jump the way I wanted to on both attempts. I have realised my mental weakness,” she said at the time. “Clearly something was different tonight, but it was nice to be on the stage. My nerves cost me my medal.”
Despite the disappointment, Takanashi vowed to work even harder to achieve success at the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018.
“The fighter in me will fight till the very end,” she said. “I want to come back to the Olympic Winter Games a much more polished ski jumper and do my country proud.”
Her more immediate goal will be to win a first individual world title at the FIS Nordic World Ski Championships in Lahti, Finland, in February next year.
The 20-year-old will then begin targeting her Olympic redemption in PyeongChang, as she seeks to fulfil the promise she so ably demonstrated at the 2012 Winter YOG.