Soaring high for Japan
The first woman to win Olympic ski jumping gold, a distinction she achieved at the inaugural Winter Youth Olympic Games in Innsbruck in 2012, Sara Takanashi just missed out on the medals at Sochi 2014, where she finished fourth. Despite that setback, the Japanese jumper remained the world No1, scoring her 53rd World Cup victory to claim her fourth crystal globe in 2017, aged only 20. A bronze medallist at PyeongChang 2018, she will resume her quest for gold at Beijing 2022.
Takanashi was born on the Japanese island of Hokkaido, a hotbed of ski jumping and home to Sapporo, the host city of the Olympic Winter Games in 1972. She was encouraged to take up the sport by her father and older brother, themselves both keen ski jumpers.
“I found it was really fun when I jumped. I enjoyed flying like a bird,” recalled Takanashi, who was only 13 when she made her debut in the FIS Continental Cup – the leading ladies’ international competition prior to the introduction of the FIS World Cup.
Two years later in 2012, the Japanese youngster won women’s ski jumping gold at the inaugural Winter Youth Olympic Games in Innsbruck (AUT) and then went on to set a new hill record of 110.5m to win the FIS Junior World Championship title in Erzurum (TUR).
Unbeaten in 2013
After improving her Telemark landing, which had previously cost her valuable style marks in competition, she embarked on a formidable run of form, winning eight of the 16 competitions in the 2012/13 World Cup season and making the podium 13 times to become the youngest ever winner of an overall FIS title aged only 16.
A silver medal in the women’s individual normal hill behind the USA’s Sarah Hendrickson followed at the 2013 World Championships in Val di Fiemme (ITA), with the Japanese jumper then going on to win gold in the mixed team normal hill competition with Ito Yuki, Ito Daiki and Takeuchi Taku.
In September 2013, Takanashi claimed her second consecutive FIS Ski Jumping Grand Prix crown, winning four of the six events to take the summertime title from France’s Coline Mattel. Ahead of the new Olympic season she said: “Around this time of the year, I used to have something wrong with my legs or some other part of my body. But I have no such problems this year.”
Wins in the first three events of the campaign cemented her status as the leading light on the women’s circuit, and she ended 2013 unbeaten in World Cup events.
Takanashi built an insurmountable lead of over 300 points in the World Cup standings as she maintained her relentless form in the months leading up to women’s ski jumping’s debut on the Olympic programme at Sochi 2014, registering four more wins and two second places. With a second crystal globe virtually guaranteed, Takanashi climbed the hill at the RusSki Gorki Jumping Centre as hot favourite for gold. But she was unable to produce her best form and finished just outside the medals in fourth, with gold going to Germany’s Carina Vogt.
“I came here wanting to do my best,” she said at the time. “I’m incredibly disappointed I couldn’t jump the way I wanted to on both attempts. I paid for my mental weakness. Clearly something was different tonight, but it was nice to be on the stage.
“My nerves cost me my medal. The fighter in me will fight till the very end. I want to come back to the Olympic Winter Games a much more polished ski jumper and do my country proud.”
Back to her best
Further World Cup success in 2015/16 eased the sting of Olympic disappointment for Takanashi. Winning 10 events in a row and a total of 14 out of 18, and never finishing lower than fourth, she claimed her third crystal globe by 471 points over Austria’s Daniela Iraschko-Stolz, Sochi Olympic silver medallist.
“The level of ladies’ ski jumping is getting higher and higher, so I also have to get better,” she said, explaining her impressive consistency. Yet gold has continued to elude the Japanese flyer in the World Championships. Fourth in the individual normal hill in Falun (SWE) in 2015, she had to make do with bronze in Lahti (FIN) in 2017, as Vogt once again emerged victorious, with Ito second. Takanashi also won bronze in the mixed team events at both championships.
Eyes on the Pyeongchang prize
Victorious in nine events, on the podium in 15 and never lower than fifth, Takanashi had another successful season in 2016/17 as she collected a fourth crystal globe. She performed impressively at the two PyeongChang 2018 test events, finishing second to teammate Ito in the first and then winning the second – her 53rd career victory – on the HS109 hill at the Alpensia Ski Jumping Stadium.
“I am happy to win my 53rd title,” said the 20-year-old afterwards. “Looking ahead to the PyeongChang Olympics I have to try hard so that I am selected to compete for Japan. I was able to fix my approach,” she explained of her win in the second event. “The fact that I was able to turn things around will give me confidence.”
An Olympic medallist
Before taking part in her second Winter Games, Takanashi won the Ski Jumping Grand Prix for the sixth time in September 2017. She went winless in the World Cup prior to travelling to the Republic of Korea, however, and lay third in the standings behind Germany’s Katharina Althaus and Norway’s Maren Lundby, who would lift the crystal globe at the end of the season.
The Japanese athlete began her challenge for gold at PyeongChang with a jump of 103.5m, which scored her 120.3 points and left her third after the first round, behind Althaus (106.5m and 123.2 points) and Lundby (105.5m and 125.5 points).
The first of the trio to jump in the second round, Takanashi again went out to 103.5m for a combined points total of 243.8 and the lead in the competition. She could only look on, however, as first Althaus and then Lundby – who posted the longest jump of the competition at 110m – sailed past her to repeat the season’s World Cup standings.
The quest goes on
Though pleased to have made the Olympic podium after the disappointment of Sochi 2014, the greatest women’s ski jumper in the short history of the event was nevertheless disappointed not to have reached her ultimate objective. “I wanted the gold but I just wasn’t able to get it, which perhaps means that I haven’t matured enough yet to win this title,” she explained. “I get support from so many people and it really motivates me to keep pushing on and trying to improve.”
Just 17 when she made her Olympic debut in Sochi, Takanashi will still only be 25 when her next chance of gold comes around at Beijing 2022. In a sign of what yet may be to come, she ended the 2017/18 season with back-to-back wins in Oberstdorf (GER) in late March. That double took her career total of World Cup victories to 55, more than any other ski jumper – male or female – in the history of the sport.