ROSA KHUTOR, Russia (Reuters) - At the age of 41 you are not supposed to be launching yourself 130 meters through the night sky at 90kph wearing skin tight yellow lycra, but nobody has told Noriaki Kasai.
On Saturday at the RusSki Gorki Ski Jump Japanese flyer Kasai claimed an astonishing silver medal in the men’s large hill competition, beating jumpers who were not even born when he first appeared on the World Cup scene.
Two monster leaps of 139 meters and 133.5 meters, both landed immaculately, looked set to earn him an improbable gold before Poland’s Kamil Stoch, the last man to jump, edged ahead by the narrowest of margins on style points.
“It is hard to describe. What can I say? It is like a dream to me,” Kasai, the oldest ski jumper to win an Olympic medal, told reporters after being cheered and applauded by a gaggle of excited Japanese TV crews.
For sheer persistence alone, Sapporo-born Kasai deserved an individual Olympic medal.
He has appeared at every Winter Games since Albertville in 1992 and until Saturday all he had to show for it was a team silver from Lillehammer in 1994.
“All these years I was disappointed by the Olympic Games. Today I just had to do it. I wanted gold but you know it is what it is,” added Kasai, who became the fourth oldest winner of an individual Winter Olympics medal.
While many of the favorites struggled in the breezy conditions, Kasai summoned up all his experience to soar gracefully off the end of the floodlit ice runway.
With no Russian challenge for medals, home fans roared him on as he completed the penultimate leap of a breathless competition and Kasai was mobbed by some of his rivals in the run-off area when he guaranteed himself a medal.
Slovenia’s baby-faced 21-year-old Peter Prevc, who took bronze, summed up Kasai’s achievement.
“I have huge respect for Noriaki Kasai,” he told reporters.
“I wasn’t even born when he was jumping in the World Cup and when he was battling me I said I still had 20 years to improve myself. He’s an inspiration for my future jumping.”
Stoch, who completed a rare short hill/long hill double, described Kasai as a “great man and a great character” but said he expected to be enjoying less dangerous pursuits when he was the wrong side of 40.
“I hope that in 15 years time I will be laying on some nice beach and will be enjoying myself,” the 26-year-old said.
Kasai’s ski jumping career has not always been so smooth and there has been plenty of turbulence along the way.
“I had moments when I almost gave up and thought nothing was going to work,” said Kasai who even moved to Finland for a while to work on his technique.
“But my character is to fight and never give up and now I have a silver medal. There are no secrets I just stick at it.”
Despite his long-awaited success on Saturday, Kasai still has no plans to come back to earth and put the skis in the garage once the team competition is over next week.
“Jumping is my life,” he said. “I want to be in Pyeongchang in 2018, I want a gold medal.”
Reporting by Martyn Herman; Editing by Ken Ferris