Atsuko Tanaka's Olympic dream takes flight
Ski jumper to make history as women join Games
In February, Canadian ski jumper Atsuko Tanaka will finally be able to realize the Olympic dream that she’s cherished since she was 13.
Tanaka, now 21, was in for a shock after she had her first important win, in 2005, at the Continental Cup in Park City, Utah.
“Several people told me that it was such a shame that ski jumping was not open to women at the Olympic Games,” she said. “I hadn’t realized that until I asked my coach if it were true. His answer was disconcerting to me.”
The idea of switching to a different sport never crossed her mind. There is nothing like that euphoric feeling of freedom that ski jumping provides for Tanaka, who started in the sport at the age of 10, after watching her father and brother compete.
“I was so confused. I was young and didn’t quite yet grasp the concept of the Olympic Games,” Tanaka said. “It’s wonderful to know that now our sport is part of the Olympic Games and that my dream will become reality. It’s amazing to think that the Games are now a goal and not just a wish.”
After many years of waiting and fighting, women’s ski jumping finally joined the Olympic family in 2011. Tanaka and her colleagues fought hard, but unsuccessfully, to convince the organizing committee of the Vancouver Games to contradict the decision by the International Olympic Committee to refuse access to the 2010 Olympics.
Although she was disappointed, Tanaka enjoyed her Olympic experience anyway, and even helped test the course before the male jumpers participated.
“I was the forerunner…for the men. Isn’t that ironic?”
In any case, she figures that injuries she sustained to her knee would likely have stopped her from participating in Vancouver, or at least they would have not allowed her to compete at the level that she would have expected from herself.
Discovering her roots
A few months after the Games, Tanaka decided to travel to Sapporo, Japan, and reconnect with her origins. This decision was not without its consequences: for two years, she had to wear Japan’s colours and compete for them internationally.
“I wanted to get to know Japan and its culture,” she said. “The only way to go to school in Sapporo was to change my nationality.”
After two years in the land of the rising sun, Tanaka came back home.
“I was born here and it’s where I feel more at home. I’m more comfortable in Canada than in Japan. I will likely go back on vacation there, but I love Canada and it is the country that I want to represent.”
Dressed in red and white again, the future coach (she obtained her degree in Sapporo) has had her best season last year, with two top eight finishes at the World Cup, where she ranked 19th overall. During the summer, she had five top-10 finishes at Grand Prix test events.
Tanaka says she seems to have finally tamed stress, her biggest enemy.
“I was inclined to think too much, especially before a competition. Recently, I learnt to free my mind and to see clearly what it is that I have to do. And I believe that’s the reason why my results have improved.”
This is good news on the eve of the Sochi Games, where her main goal will be to not let the pressure, the stress or the media take away her focus. Plus, with teammate Alexandra Pretorius sidelined with a knee injury, Tanaka could be carrying the weight of an entire nation on her small shoulders.
In the end, it doesn’t really matter to her; Tanaka hopes that the presence of women’s ski jumping at the Olympics will help encourage other Canadians women to follow her path.
This story has been translated from French and edited by CBC Sports.