6 weeks to Sochi & 1st women's ski jumping event

DENNIS PASSA (AP Sports Writer)
Sara Takanashi from Japan celebrates after she won the Ladies Ski Jumping World Cup in Hinterzarten, Germany, Sunday, Dec. 22, 2013. (AP Photo/Daniel Maurer)

While world champion Sarah Hendrickson continues rehabilitation from a knee injury and still hopes to compete at Sochi, a precocious Japanese flyer has emerged as the gold medal favorite when women's ski jumping makes its debut, finally, at the Winter Olympics in February.

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.

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 Aug. 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. That's what's driving me,'' Hendrickson said recently. ''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 U.S. trials at Park City, Utah, where the winner of each event 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 Jan. 22, regardless of whether she is able to begin competing regularly again in early January.

Hendrickson and Takanashi are two of the top names in an event that will finally have its breakthrough debut at the Olympics. The IOC twice rejected women's ski jumping for the 2010 Vancouver Olympics program, saying the sport lacked enough elite competitors. Women jumpers took their case to the Supreme Court of Canada, but failed to overturn the IOC decision in time for Vancouver.

Men have been competing in Olympic ski jumping since 1924 and, in April 2011, the IOC added women's ski jumping to the 2014 Winter Games program.

So there'll be 30 female ski jumpers on the hill on Feb. 11 at Sochi, and Takanashi might make the Olympic decision-makers wonder why it took them so long. Last weekend at Hinterzarten, Germany, the 2012 Youth Olympics winner swept to her third World Cup win of the season.

Despite her small stature - she's 1.51-meters (4 feet, 11 inches) tall - Takanashi mastered the windy conditions to collect a winning total of 239.9 points with jumps of 96 and 98.5 meters, 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 World Cup meet earlier this year. ''To fulfil my dream about a gold medal would be a huge success, but I will be glad about any position near the top.''

Agents for Takanashi declined interview requests from The Associated Press, saying the young star was too focused on the World Cup events and the Winter Games.

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 earlier in the year. ''It is just like being a bird.''

While Hendrickson continues her recovery, the Americans had some good finishes at Germany heading into their Olympic trials. Jessica Jerome had two top-10 finishes, while Lindsey Van, the 2009 inaugural world champion, finished ninth on Saturday.

Both Van and Jerome improved after placing 22nd and 19th, respectively, in the World Cup opener in Lillehammer, Norway.

Hendrickson, meanwhile, can't wait to return to competition, posting in a tweet Tuesday: ''I can almost taste the ski jumps I'm so close.''