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Japan flag bearer, 8-time Olympian Kasai grateful for support of deceased mother, sister

Noriaki Kasai holds the Japanese national flag as he leads the Japanese Olympic delegation during the opening ceremony of the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics on Feb. 9, 2018. (Mainichi)

PYEONGCHANG, South Korea -- Nordic ski jumper Noriaki Kasai led the Japanese Olympic delegation as its flag bearer during the opening ceremony of the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics on Feb. 9.

It is the 45-year-old Kasai's eighth trip to the Olympics as an athlete, the most in the history of the modern-day event. However, Pyeongchang 2018 will be the first time for the legendary ski jumper to compete in the Olympics in front of his family.

Kasai's ability to compete for so many years derives from a childhood spent in Shimokawa, Hokkaido. He recalls that his family was so poor that it was difficult to buy rice. He loved the potato cakes that his mother Sachiko made for his family from mashed potatoes. Despite such hardships, his family saved as much money as possible to help Kasai continue ski jumping.

Kasai's 48-year-old sister Noriko said of the jumper, "My brother has overcome many hardships since childhood. If my family had been wealthy, he wouldn't have been so successful."

His family also faces challenges. Kasai's other sister Kumiko, five years younger than him, was diagnosed with a rare and difficult to treat blood disease called aplastic anemia in 1993, and she has been hospitalized repeatedly since.

In July 1996, Sachiko suffered serious burns in a fire. Kasai had been hoping to invite her to his third Olympic appearance in Nagano in 1998, but she passed away in May 1997. Kasai went on to appear in every subsequent winter games, but Noriko and Kumiko viewed his performances from home and a hospital bed, respectively.

Kasai won his first silver medal in individual competition at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics. A month after the games, Kasai visited Kumiko and hung his silver medal around her neck. Kumiko smiled and said, "It's not gold. Try again." Kasai said he took her words as encouragement to keep competing.

Kumiko wrote about her joy at her brother winning the silver medal, saying, "I'm grateful to many people. Thank you for allowing my brother to win silver. ... Even though it's not gold, I'm really happy."

Kumiko died on Jan. 13, 2016 at age 38. Her diary was discovered shortly after, and Kasai brought it home.

Kasai had married his fiancee Rena, now 33, after the Sochi Games. Their daughter Rino was born 17 days after Kumiko died. Rena, 2-year-old Rino and his elder sister Noriko will be on hand in Pyeongchang to watch Kasai compete in the ski jumping final on Feb. 10, after he flew through the Feb. 8 elimination round.

"My family has supported me at all times and allowed me to go on the road, and they mean more to me than anyone else. I'd like to win the gold medal and show it to my mother and younger sister in heaven, and to share that joy with my family at the venue," Kasai said.

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