KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia (AP) — Two weeks in hospital in January with a life-threatening illness, and an Olympic bronze medal less than a month later at the Sochi Games. It's been quite a turnaround for Japanese ski jumper Taku Takeuchi.
Takeuchi broke down moments after collecting his third-place medal with the rest of his Japanese teammates as he spoke of his fight against Churg-Strausse Syndrome, a disorder that causes his blood vessels to become inflamed.
"I thought I might even die," Takeuchi said. "But with support from my family, support from people at the hospital, so many different people helped me."
On Monday night, Takeuchi was far from his best, finishing fifth and seventh with his jumps. But as usual, 41-year-old veteran Noriaki Kasai helped the Japanese team, finishing third in all of his jumps to help them secure a medal.
Takeuchi credited Kasai with helping him away from the competition jumps, too.
"Even if he is not doing so well, he still gives us a lot of support," Takeuchi said. "He is really nice to us, really considerate to us and seeing that we feel really safe."
His parents were worried about Takeuchi's safety when he decided to pursue his dream of coming to Sochi, despite the illness. But Takeuchi had been jumping well this season — a win with the Japanese team on the normal hill at Lillehammer, Norway, where he also placed second individually. He was in 14th place in the World Cup standings.
And he wanted to make up for a lackluster performance in his first Olympic appearance at Vancouver in 2010, where although finishing fifth with the Japanese team, he could only manage 34th place in the normal hill and 37th in the large hill in the individual events.
Despite his illness, he improved to 24th in the normal hill at Sochi and 13th on the large. Not bad for somebody who is dealing with an illness that could end his career at the age of 26.
"My father told me I could do it but my mother was more worried," Takeuchi said. "He enlarged my picture from Lillehammer and wrote 'gold' on the picture in my hospital room.
"My muscles and weight dropped and I didn't look like myself, but I trained even in the hospital and I had positivity in mind."
That effort was not lost on Kasai, the team leader.
"It chokes me up," Kasai said. "I tear up thinking about his sickness, so I really wanted him to get the medal."