Ski jumper Takanashi aiming high at Sochi Olympics

JIM ARMSTRONG AP Sports Writer Published:

TOKYO (AP) -- For a 17-year-old high school student, Japanese ski jumper Sara Takanashi is remarkably calm about carrying the gold medal aspirations of an entire nation at the Sochi Olympics.

The International Olympic Committee decided in April 2011 to add women's jumping to the Olympic program, and with her dominance of World Cup events this season, Takanashi will be the favorite to take the inaugural gold.

Japan didn't win any gold medals at the Vancouver Olympics so the heat is on the country's athletes to improve at Sochi but Takanashi keeps the expectations in perspective.

"I basically just try to enjoy every jump," Takanashi said after winning her eighth title at a World Cup meet in Zao, Japan, earlier this month. "I know the expectations are there but all I can do is prepare as best I can and enjoy each competition."

Takanashi, who started jumping in elementary school, finished second to 19-year-old Sarah Hendrickson of the United States at the 2013 world championships.

Hendrickson crashed in a training session five months ago, injuring her right knee but had surgery on Aug. 29, returned to jumping on Jan. 11 and was recently named to the U.S. team.

Having Hendrickson back changes things but Takanashi said she's not intimidated by the return of her biggest rival.

"I feel motivated even more now that she is back," Takanashi said of Hendrickson's return. "I'm looking forward to competing against her."

Takanashi has struggled with her Telemark landing in the past but seems to have improved that this season. With eight wins out of 11 events this season, Takanashi has 1,020 points in the overall standings for a 354-point lead over her closest rival Carina Vogt of Germany.

Ski jumping has always been popular in Japan. One of the most memorable Winter Olympic moments for Japan was when the men won the team event on home soil at the Nagano Olympics in 1988.

Growing up on Japan's northern Island of Hokkaido not far from Sapporo, host city of the 1972 Olympics, Takanashi had plenty of opportunity to practice and ski jumping runs in the family.

Takanashi's father, Hironari Takanashi, was formerly an active sky jumper. Her brother, four years older than Sara, is also a ski jumper.

At Sochi, the competition will be held over two rounds, with the top 30 advancing to the second jump. The winner is determined by points, not purely on the length of the jump, with the total score a combination of distance and style.

Takanashi, who is 152 centimeters ( 5 foot) tall, attributes her ability to achieve her overwhelming distances on her jumps to a sense of balance she developed through ballet lessons at an early age.

She has become hugely popular in Japan. At two recent World Cup events on home soil capacity crowds turned out to get a glimpse of the young star.

"I really appreciate the support of the fans that come out to watch me in some pretty tough conditions," Takanashi said. "I will do everything I can to make them proud."