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Takanashi overcomes bitter past to win ski jumping bronze, sets sights higher

Sara Takanashi sheds tears after landing her second jump, at Alpensia Ski Jumping Centre in South Korea, on Feb. 12, 2018. (Mainichi)

PYEONGCHANG, South Korea -- Star ski jumper Sara Takanashi's bitter 2014 Sochi Olympics experience haunted her dreams. The gold medal hopeful finished fourth at Sochi, dashing her chance to stand proud on the winner's podium.

This year, however, Takanashi is finally able to feel the happy weight of an Olympic medal around her neck, with the bronze she captured in in the ladies normal hill ski jumping competition.

"I couldn't win gold, but I gained an experience that will contribute to my career," a smiling Takanashi said, her eyes moist.

Women's ski jumping debuted as an official Olympic event at Sochi. Takanashi had dominated the season leading up to the games, but she failed to grab a medal at the international tournament.

Takanashi, slight of build and standing 152 centimeters tall, set her sights on Olympic gold, saying that she wanted to convey her gratitude to the female athletes who went before her. Under the pressure, however, her outlook became clouded and her technical skills faltered. The Olympic Games were supposed to be something to look forward to, but after her fourth-place finish, she recalled, "I felt more sorry than pained."

Takanashi was often tormented in her dreams after the Sochi Games. When she flew through the air, her body wouldn't move and for some reason she was sucked into the landing slope. Then she found herself sitting on the in-run gate. She would often wake suddenly in the middle of the night.

Recently, however, the perspective in her dreams has changed slightly. The scene goes from her coach who times the start of the jump next to the in-run, to herself flying through the air.

"It might be that I've become able to see things objectively, rather than just based on my feelings. The frustration from Sochi became nourishment for me to withstand the tough practice. So the dream wasn't that bad," she said.

Takanashi passed a high school graduation equivalency exam and, in the spring of 2014, the then 17-year-old got an early start at Nippon Sport Science University. Living alone, she cooked for herself for the first time. She also went out a lot, going to cafes and on drives. Now, as an athlete, she does not merely obey her coaches' instructions, but can present differing opinions of her own. Her physical condition and technique have gone far beyond what they were four years ago.

Takanashi's mother Chikage, 50, who cheered her daughter from the stands at the Pyeongchang Games, pressed her hands together as if to pray when Takanashi took her second jump. When the ski jumper landed, her mother stood up and clapped.

"She tried hard, she really tried hard. This is a gold medal for me," she said with tears in her eyes.

At a news conference after her bronze medal performance, Takanashi commented, "I didn't reach the gold medal I set out to win. I feel half relieved and half frustrated. The result is frustrating, but right now I feel refreshed." She added that her medal win had yet to sink in.

In a separate interview later, Takanashi expressed her desire to rise higher.

"These past four years, I've rebounded from frustration, but I've come to understand that I'm not cut out for a gold medal. I have to study more as a competitor," she said.

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