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May 28, 2017

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Japan Olympian inspires pride in home town

TOKYO -- The streets of one town on the snowy Japanese island of Hokkaido are festooned with pink banners in support of one of its daughters — 17-year-old Sara Takanashi, who is bidding to make Olympic history in the first women's ski-jump.

If the 17-year-old schoolgirl wins the inaugural event in Sochi on Tuesday, fireworks will shoot into the air above Kamikawa in celebration of her achievement, putting the hot-spring resort town on the map.

After winning 10 of 13 World Cups so far contested this season, Takanashi is rated by domestic media as the best gold medal prospect among the 113 Japanese athletes competing at the Sochi Games.

Baby-faced Takanashi, who stands just 152 centimeters tall, has been an Olympic poster girl for Japan along with Mao Asada, who is raring to avenge South Korean Kim Yu-aa's women's figure skating gold at the 2010 Vancouver Games.

Takanashi's emergence comes amid a Winter Olympic title drought for Japan, which hauled a historic high of five gold medals — including two for ski jumping — when it hosted the 1998 Nagano Games. Since then, Japan has won only one gold — through women's figure skater Shizuka Arakawa at Turin 2006.

When Japan hosted the Winter Games for the first time in 1972 — in Sapporo, Hokkaido — it swept the normal-hill ski-jumping medals.

But Japanese jumpers have stalled since Nagano after rules were changed to limit the length of skis — a move that some say has disadvantaged fliers who are not so tall.

"Sara's gold-medal chance is 100 percent. Haven't you seen her jump?" Masahiko Harada, who helped Japan win the large-hill ski-jumping team title in Nagano, told Japanese media.

"It can be 500 percent," said Harada, 45, who also hails from Kamikawa, where Takanashi was born into a family of ski-jumpers.

After growing up watching her father and older brother take to the sky on skis, it was only natural that Takanashi should follow suit at the age of eight.

"I found it was really fun when I jumped," Takanashi, who also did ballet and learned the piano as a child, said in "Flying Girls." "I enjoyed flying like a bird."

Pink 'Looks fine in snow'

Since the women's World Cup tour was launched in 2011, she has lifted a record 19 World Cups in three seasons — eight in 2012-2013 when she won the overall title but finished runner-up to Sarah Hendrickson at the world championships. The 19-year-old American, just back from knee injury, is seen as one of Takanashi's main rivals.

"From the town of Kamikawa to the top of the world," some 300 banners declare along shopping streets in the town. Hundreds of flags with the name "SARA" on them are hung from windows.

The color pink has been chosen as "it looks fine in snow," according to an official in the town of 4,000 people.

"The whole town is painted pink," quipped Kamikawa's mayor, Yoshiji Sato, before leaving for Sochi on Saturday to head a squad of supporters including Takanashi's family.

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