- Associated Press - Wednesday, February 19, 2014

KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia (AP) - A decade ago, when snowboarding was still in its growth stages in Japan, Tomoka Takeuchi knew she had a decision to make.

If she wanted to make a living with a board under her feet, Takeuchi needed to get away.

In 2006 her journey took her to Switzerland, where she spent six years as a de facto member of the Swiss national snowboarding team, training alongside a group that included Patrizia Kummer.

The two became fast friends, often lining up against each other in training. On Wednesday, something significantly higher was on the line: an Olympic gold medal.

And while Kummer raced to the top of the podium when Takeuchi fell during the women’s parallel giant slalom final, the 30-year-old Takeuchi made history in the process. Her silver medal was the first ever by a female Japanese snowboarder at the Winter Games.

While Takeuchi will accept the honor under the flag of her native country, it’s an honor she’s only too happy to share.

“My podium is not for just Japan,” Takeuchi said. “I want to say thank you to whole world.”

Her triumph came a week after Japan grabbed silver and bronze in the men’s halfpipe, where Ayumu Hirano and Taku Hiraoka finished ahead of two-time defending gold medalist Shaun White.

Halfpipe, however, is where the cool kids hang out. The foothold for alpine snowboarding is a bit more tenuous. Takeuchi and Yoskioka Kentaro are the only two Japanese PGS riders ranked in the World Cup standings, though Takeuchi is hopeful help is on the way.

“I hope next the junior team is also coming,” she said. “For the (2018) Korea Olympics, it’s my goal.”

Nearly half of Japan’s seven medals in Sochi have come at Rosa Khutor Extreme Park in events long dominated by the U.S., Canada and Europe. The gap, however, appears to be narrowing.

Takeuchi has been on the front edge of Japan’s rise. Sochi marks her fourth trip to the Olympics. Before Wednesday’s breakthrough, her best finish was ninth in Turin eight years ago.

She was never in any real danger until the finals on a sunny, warm day that turned an icy slope in the morning to slush by midafternoon. Takeuchi took a 0.30-second lead over Kummer after the first finals run while racing down the decidedly faster red course. Forced to switch to the more difficult blue course for her second run, it didn’t quite work out.

Scrambling to keep up with Kummer, Takeuchi lost her edge halfway down. Kummer raised her arms in victory. After a brief sense of disappointment, Takeuchi did too.

“I am very joyful,” Takeuchi said.

So was Kummer, who huddled close to Takeuchi during a postrace press conference and even helped translate a couple of questions from German.

“We had a great time when she was on our team and she was always fast, she was always faster than me in training,” Kummer said. “I’m really happy for Tomoka to be on the podium with a silver medal. It’s great.”

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