Japan's ski jumpers stay zen, eye Olympic gold
While teenage star Sara Takanashi has grabbed the headlines this season with her stunning results in the women's events, the men -- led by veteran Noriaki Kasai -- have also dialled up their performances.
After a poor 2012-2013 season, they now have five World Cup podiums and Kasai made history earlier this month by winning the ski flying event in Tauplitz, Austria at age 41.
But amid all the excitement over Olympics on February 7-23, ski jumping's sole non-European powerhouse shines especially by its utter calm and lack of fuss.
"Nothing special (needs to be done)," coach Tomoharu Yokokawa told AFP when asked what his strategy was for the upcoming event.
"The team is good. We have young and old athletes, we have good teamwork, very good results."
"Everything is for the best."
Teams always watch out for equipment tweaks by their rivals, which can be crucial as ski jumpers launch themselves through the air after racing down an icy track at 90 kilometres per hour (56 miles per hour).
But for Yokokawa's crew, "the focus is on their technique and not so much on what others have," said technician Andreas Gruber, who takes care of the equipment and is the only non-Japanese on the team.
"Japanese athletes are a lot calmer if things don't go their way," the young Austrian told AFP.
While other nations are quick to complain over a decision they consider unfair, "Japanese athletes just get over it. It's done, let's move on."
Sushi break before Sochi
To be in shape for Sochi, Yokokawa decided this year to leave out two races, Engelberg in December and Zakopane in January, so his athletes could go home to recuperate -- and enjoy the food they miss dearly when in Europe.
Japan's national coach since 2010, he has managed to impose a training philosophy more adapted to conditions in Europe, where most World Cup events are held, according to Gruber.
"He saw how far technique had evolved... but until all Japanese coaches were on the same page, it took a while. That's another reason they're now getting better."
Unlike elsewhere, ski jumpers in Japan belong to a company team with whom they train during the year, only joining the national side for competitions.
This is why, amid ski jumpers who often look barely out of their teens, Japan still fields "old guys" like Kasai and ex-world champion Takanobu Okabe, who has been seeking a comeback at age 43.
Even with a dip in form they can count on full financial support and top equipment and coaches from their company.
Dreaming of gold
For Yokokawa, his proteges still have some way to go to equal top athletes like Austria's Thomas Morgenstern.
"They are not as powerful but they have good technique.
"They are delicate, sensitive. That's a strong and a weak point for us," he said.
Better able to adjust their jump in the air, they are also easily unsettled if weather conditions are poor -- another reason to focus on performance rather than talk of a medal.
For 26-year-old Taku Takeuchi, second in Lillehammer in December, the objectives in Sochi were clear: "I want to get a medal but I have to do my jump. It's very important that I do that."
Last year, he was part of the mixed team that won world championship gold and in Sochi, the team event will again be the Japanese men's best chance at a medal.
Individually, Takeuchi, Kasai and Daiki Ito -- fourth in 2012 overall World Cup standings -- also have a shot at winning Japan's first Olympic ski jumping medal since 1998.
"I have many years of experience. I'm good mentally and physically and (have) good speed," Kasai told AFP.
The cheerful Japanese travels to Russia fresh from his first World Cup win in 10 years and a fifth place in the prestigious Four Hills tournament.
In his 25th season, he is still as eager as a kid and nowhere near thinking about retirement.
"I want to win gold medals. I don't have gold medals and it's my motivation.
To win in Sochi, "it's my dream."