Teen star Takanashi chases historic ski jump gold
Sochi: Women ski jumpers will make Olympic history on Tuesday when they compete at a Winter Games for the first time after a gruelling decade-long battle for recognition.
And the cast of contenders adds spice to the occasion, with a Japanese teen sensation, a gay Austrian athlete and a recovering US world champion as favourites.
Pint-sized Sara Takanashi, 17, has swept the podiums over the past two seasons and will be the jumper to beat.
But Austrian veteran Daniela Iraschko-Stolz, 13 years her senior, has shown she`s in top form in pre-race training, winning four of the first six practice jumps on the RusSki Gorki "normal hill".
Reigning world champion Sarah Hendrickson, 19, has been fighting to come back after a serious knee injury in August that has kept her out of competition all season.
For World Cup leader Takanashi, who has not finished off the podium since February 2013 and was crowned junior world champion for the third year in a row last month, the important thing will be to keep her focus.
"I have already decided everything tactically and I`m going to stick to it," she said.
"I would like to have more time to adjust to the hill because there are none like this in Japan. I`m not really happy with my three jumps," she said after Sunday`s training.
But the goal remained clear for the youngster, who won gold at the 2012 Youth Olympic Games.
"For me, it`s not a failure not to win the gold medal, but it is my aim."
Iraschko-Stolz, who managed to top Takanashi in two events this season -- in Planica, Slovenia last month -- is aware of the difficult task ahead of her.
"Sara Takanashi is really impressive in competition," said the Austrian, who has made headlines at home as an openly gay athlete who got married last autumn.
"It`s very hard to beat her... but I think I can fight for a medal in Sochi."
Russia`s controversial stance on gay rights has been a hot topic ahead of the Games but Iraschko-Stolz has preferred to focus on her performances.
"I like this hill, it`s perfectly prepared. If I can stay relaxed, I can definitely be among the top jumpers. That`s what it`ll be about on Tuesday."
Hendrickson did poorly in the first two training sessions but remained undaunted.
"I`m going to have to step it up quite a bit... but I`m optimistic and hopefully I can pull something together. I have to give myself a little bit of a break because I haven`t had that many jumps and this is a new hill."
The knee is still painful but her participation on Tuesday is not in doubt.
"It`s not even on my mind that I`m going to miss it!" she laughed.
Iraschko-Stolz would not put it past her to cause a sensation.
"Who knows what she can do, especially on the evening. There`s an Olympic atmosphere and everything`s possible."
Women ski jumpers have fought for years to get their sport included in the Olympics, even taking the matter to court in 2008, to no avail and it was not until 2011 that they got their own World Cup season.
Men`s ski jumping has featured at the Olympics since the first Winter Games in Chamonix, France, in 1924.
Germany`s Carina Vogt, currently second in the World Cup, and Takanashi`s compatriot Yuki Ito round out the likely medal contenders at Tuesday`s event.