KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia – The men were always going to be overshadowed by the women leading into the ski jumping competition at the Sochi Olympics. After all, male athletes had flown off the jumping hill for 80 years at the Winter Games before women were finally allowed to compete.
Once in Russia, though, more than one intriguing story line developed: Kamil Stoch won both the normal and individual hill for Poland, overcoming illness in the first event. Germany won twice — Carina Vogt, an historic first-ever gold in the women's normal hill; and another gold in the men's team event in a close, final-jump win over two-time defending gold medalists Austria.
Japan featured for both good and disappointing reasons.
Sara Takanashi, the 17-year-old high school student who had won 10 World Cup events this season, was the overwhelming favorite to win the first Olympic ski jumping gold medal ever awarded to a woman. But perhaps burdened by the expectations, she not only missed out on a victory, she didn't get on the podium. Takanashi placed fourth behind Vogt, Daniela Iraschko-Stolz of Austria and Coline Mattel of France.
"I couldn't jump the way I wanted to," Takanashi said. "I came here wanting to do my best. I'm incredibly disappointed."
The surprise loss by the youngest member of the Japanese team was countered quite nicely by its oldest male competitor — 41-year-old Noriaki Kasai, who was just edged into silver by Stoch in the large hill competition. That gave Kasai his first individual medal in his seventh Olympics.
Kasai then led Japan to bronze in Monday's team event, giving him a second team medal 20 years after his first. He first competed at Albertville, France in 1992.
"All these years I was disappointed by the Olympic Games. Today I just had to do it," Kasai said, vowing to return in 2018 in Pyeongchang, South Korea, to try again. "I wanted gold, but it is what it is."
After Japan's bronze medal in the team event, Kasai paid tribute to teammate Taku Takeuchi, who competed despite being diagnosed with a blood vessel inflammation disorder called Churg-Strausse Syndrome.
"It chokes me up, I tear up thinking about his sickness, so I really wanted him to get the medal," Kasai said.
Stoch got two — both of the golden variety.
"I have weird thoughts at this moment. I'm thinking, 'Is it happening for real or is it a dream?'" Koch said after his victory on the large hill, where he didn't think he performed at his best. "Today I was nervous all day from the morning to the end of the competition. I made some mistakes, but what the heck, I won."
If Takanashi was upset that she didn't jump her best in the historic first women's gold, then Sarah Hendrickson, the 19-year-old defending world champion from Park City, Utah, was in the same category for a different reason.
Hendrickson finished 21st of 30 starters, still affected by right knee surgery she underwent in August. She wasn't surprised to see Takanashi off the podium.
"It's a crazy world the Olympics," Hendrickson said. "It shows she is a human being."
As the gold was being awarded to Vogt, the powerbrokers who helped get women's ski jumping into the Olympics after a decade-long fight were already plotting their next moves.
"Now we have to work on 2018, getting women on the large hill and a team event," said DeeDee Corradini, president of Women's Ski Jumping USA and a former mayor of Salt Lake City.
Corradini and Peter Jerome, father of American ski jumper Jessica Jerome and founder of Ski Jumping USA, were among those leading the fight to get women's ski jumping into the games. They had to overturn long-time impressions that women's bodies weren't able to withstand the rigors of the sport.
Jessica Jerome finished 10th, but like most of her peers on the hill at Sochi, felt like a winner.
"We have arrived," Jerome said. "We're hard-working, we're dedicated and we're good at what we do."
Whether the women jumpers who travel to Pyeongchang in 2018 will see an expanded program for their sport is anyone's guess. One thing is heavily tipped — seeing Kasai flying down the hill at age 45.
"It became the best Olympics for me. I was able to get an individual medal," Kasai said. "I don't feel any age differences. Even old athletes feel young inside."