A precocious Japanese flyer has emerged as the gold medal favorite when women's ski jumping finally makes its debut at the Winter Olympics in February.
While world champion Sarah Hendrickson continues rehabilitation from a knee injury and still hopes to compete at Sochi, Sara Takanashi has won all three World Cup ski jumping events this season and dominates the overall standings.
In the middle of next month, the 17-year-old Takanashi will have two "home" World Cup events for her to pad her lead - at Sapporo and Zao, Japan - and perhaps to give her even more confidence for a podium performance at Sochi.
|Sarah Hendrickson, centre, won the Women's Ski Jumping World Cup in Norway in March. Sara Takanashi, left, was second and Jacqueline Seifriedsberger third [EPA]
Hendrickson, meanwhile, hopes to be back jumping at World Cup events next month after having had surgery to reconstruct the anterior cruciate ligament in her right knee on August 29, eight days after she was hurt during a training camp in Germany.
"Jumping in January and making the Olympic team, that's what's getting me up in the morning," Hendrickson said.
"I could easily give up on the Olympics, but that's my dream. That's what I've been training for. I want so badly to walk into those opening ceremonies and represent my country."
This weekend, the 19-year-old Hendrickson will watch on at the US trials at Park City, Utah, where the winner of each event on Sunday is guaranteed a berth on the team for the Winter Games at Sochi.
Hendrickson is a near-certainty to receive a discretionary spot when the team is named on January 22, regardless of whether she is able to begin competing regularly again in early January.
"I can almost taste the ski jumps I'm so close," she wrote on the microblogging site Twitter on Tuesday.
Hendrickson and Takanashi are two of the top names in an event that will finally have its breakthrough debut at the Olympics.
The International Olympic Committe (IOC) twice rejected women's ski jumping for the 2010 Vancouver Olympics programme because it said the sport lacked enough elite competitors.
Gian Franco Kasper, president of the International Ski Federation (FIS), said in 2005 that jumping was too dangerous for women.
"(It) seems to be not appropriate for the ladies from a medical point of view," Kasper told told National Public Radio in the US.
Women jumpers took their case to the Supreme Court of Canada, but failed to overturn the IOC decision in time for Vancouver.
Men have competed in Olympic ski jumping since 1924 and, in April 2011, the IOC added women's ski jumping to the 2014 Winter Games programme.
So there will be 30 female ski jumpers on the hill on February 11 at Sochi, and Takanashi might make the Olympic decision-makers wonder why it took them so long.
At Hinterzarten, Germany last weekend, the 2012 Youth Olympics winner swept to her third World Cup win of the season.
Despite her small stature - she's 1.51-metres-tall - Takanashi mastered the windy conditions to collect a winning total of 239.9 points with jumps of 96 and 98.5 metres, more than 10 points ahead of the second-place finisher.
Takanashi, who graduated from high school last year,credits ballet lessons as a child with helping her maintain balance during her jumps.
"The Olympics in Sochi are my big goal," Takanashi said at a 2013 World Cup meet. To fulfil my dream about a gold medal would be a huge success, but I will be glad about any position near the top."
Takanashi's father, Hironari Takanashi, was a ski jumper, as is her brother. She made her first jump when she was in the second grade at school.
"I was frightened at first, but once I jumped, I found it was fun," she told Japanese media. "It is just like being a bird."
Source: Al Jazeera and agencies