Soaring high for Japan
Winner of the first gold medal in women’s ski jumping ever awarded on the Olympic stage, when she emerged victorious at the inaugural Winter Youth Olympic Games in Innsbruck in 2012, Japan’s world No1 Sara Takanashi won her fourth crystal globe in 2017 and is now aiming for the ultimate prize at PyeongChang 2018.
TrailblazerSara Takanashi was born on the Japanese island of Hokkaido, a hotbed of ski jumping and home to Sapporo, Olympic Winter Games host city in 1972. She was encouraged to take up the sport by her father and older brother, both themselves 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 2013After 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), before going on to win gold in the mixed team normal hill competition with Ito Yuki, Ito Daiki and Takeuchi Taku.
In September 2013 she claimed her second consecutive FIS Ski Jumping Grand Prix crown – events held on artificial surfaces - winning four of the six events to take the title over 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 elsewhere. But I have no such things this year.” Wins in the first three events of the campaign cemented her status as favourite, ending 2013 unbeaten in the World Cup.
Takanashi built an imperious 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 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,” she added. “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 ten 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 from 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 prizeVictorious in nine events, on the podium in 15 and never lower than fifth, 2016/17 proved to be another successful season for Takanashi 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.” Despite her youth, Takanashi will be banking on her experience and impressive tally of World Cup triumphs when she goes for Olympic gold in February 2018.