Ryōyū Kobayashi is ski jumping’s next superstar and we’re here for it
© Jason Halayko/Red Bull Content Pool
After dominating the last Ski Jumping World Cup season, Japanese star Kobayashi is the hottest name in the sport, winning competitions with a fresh new approach. Here, he tells all about his career.
"In middle and high school, I never would've imagined I'd make it this far as a ski jumper," says Ryōyū Kobayashi.
But in the spring of 2015, Kobayashi joined Tsuchiya Home Ski Club after catching the eye of a living legend – the world-famous ski jumper Noriaki Kasai. He was 18 at the time.
Kobayashi went on to place seventh on his debut at the 2016 FIS World Cup in Zakopane, Poland and had his first win at 2018 FIS Ski Jumping Grand Prix in Hakuba. The same year, he swept all four hills at the German-Austrian Ski Jumping Week, becoming just the third person in history to achieve such a feat.
In the 2018–19 season, Kobayashi set more and more consecutive records, including being the first Japanese competitor to be crowned the overall champion at the FIS Ski Jumping World Cup. This top-level jumper is now a global sensation and a proud export of Japan.
So, just how did he get started with his career as a ski jumper? (In fact, all three of his siblings are competitive skiers.) His story begins at his birthplace in Hachimantai, Iwate Prefecture.
"I took after my older brother," Kobayashi reveals. "My first time skiing was in the yard at my house when I was three-years-old. And I first tried ski jumping sometime around pre-school. My dad was a middle school teacher and managed the school's ski club. After visiting the club, my older brother decided he wanted to compete in ski jumping. Always one to take after my brother, I said I also wanted to try it. A few days later, I went to a 20-metre jump with my brother and dad for the first time. Of course, it was really scary at that age, so I didn't go off it," he laughs.
He tried his first jump around grade three of elementary school. By junior high school, Kobayashi began taking ski jumping even more seriously, gaining prominence in the sport with impressive results in domestic competitions.
Quite a feat from someone with so-called "selfish" motives.
"During middle and high school, I competed both in ski jump and Nordic combined. I won the national middle school competition and also won at the National Sports Festival during high school, but I had yet to see much of the world. There were a lot of people above me who were going to World Cups and taking podiums at the World Juniors during high school. At the time I didn't really think of trying to become a pro," reflects Kobayashi.
Nonetheless, Kobayashi did in fact become a pro upon graduating high school. Just what was it that changed his fate?
"My older brother was always going abroad for events like the World Cup as a Nordic combined skier. I saw that and simply thought it seemed like it would be fun to be able to go abroad. I didn't want to work yet, so I thought I should try a little harder so that I could go overseas. It was a really selfish motive" he grins. "With that kind of approach, even as a pro, I wasn't going to achieve much."
Then, one day Kobayashi had an encounter that would have a huge impact on his life: he met ski jumping legend Noriaki Kasai. Impressed by Kobayashi's jumping style (he has an aerial posture unlike most other Japanese competitors), Kasai offered Kobayashi a spot at Tsuchiya Home, where Kasai is active as both a competitor and a coach. At the same time, Kobayashi wasn't feeling confident about his physical strength. He decided to focus his energy on ski jumping in order to reach even higher heights.
"That was when my life as a competitor really changed. In addition to skiing and training, Coach Kasai and I do a wide range of sports together in training, such as volleyball and tennis. Regardless of the sport, I began working in earnest to win without taking any shortcuts. After so many days of this, my personality eventually changed, so that I could no longer tolerate losing. So, though I started with selfish motives, it was Coach Kasai who taught me the joy of winning. This change in approach led me to gradually start achieving results at global competitions."
It was the 2018 World Cup in Wisla, Poland that really demonstrated Kobayashi's new winning mentality: "At the opening event in the individual competition, I finished on the podium for the first time, placing third. The old me would've been really happy, but I was filled with regret, thinking about what I could have done and what mistakes I made. I was deeply disappointed. But that same year (the 2018–19 season), I became the overall champion at the World Cup. I think it was the initial feeling of disappointment that allowed that to happen."
When asked about the most memorable competition in his career so far, Kobayashi says it was his first trip to the World Cup in Zakopane four years ago.
"Ski jumping is popular in Poland, so there were over 40,000 spectators throughout the two-day event. I got lucky at this big event and ended up seventh in the individual. The response from everyone was really incredible. Ski jumping can really excite people. Even now, this is a really important motivator for me," says Kobayashi in his unwavering, mild-mannered tone. It’s hard to imagine Kobayashi is only 24-years-old given his relaxed, calm demeanour.
Pursuing other hobbies to improve his skills
"Recently I've been interested in fashion and cars. I like to decompress with them when I’m not ski jumping," says Kobayashi. His keen interest in fashion still shows today. Aside from sponsored items like his Red Bull hat and Tsuchiya Home shirt, he wears Neighborhood pants and Converse Chuck Taylor shoes.
"I'm influenced by Fragment Design, which is affiliated with Hiroshi Fujiwara and street brands from Ura-Harajuku. I purchased a Porsche Cayman with a loan when I was around 20, but I got rid of it and now drive a Lexus LC500. On my days off, I think about my hobbies. I learn a lot by going out to eat with stylists and car dealers. You think I'm calm? That's probably because I have lots of opportunities to talk to people older than me."
Kobayashi leaves a memorable impression. He talks about ski jumping with a collected, careful demeanour, showing sparks of passion and seriousness. Yet he has a boyish excitement when talking about his hobbies.
"I've been committed to competitive skiing since I was little," he continues. "But talking to people in other fields lets me learn about totally different worlds. That helps to expand my field of view and I think I can use that to be a more effective ski jumper."
The future of his ski jumping generation
Kobayashi's interest in fashion and cars goes beyond a mere hobby or pastime. He brings up a video by snowboarder Torstein Horgmo as a source of inspiration.
"I happened to see a video of his and it had a huge impact on me. It was cool how he attracts people not just through competition, but through his unique, one-of-a-kind style and way of life. Competitive snowboarding has an appealing lifestyle aspect to it. Achievement doesn’t just come down to the jumps. I wish there was more of that in competitive ski jumping. That's why I want to be an athlete who has a sense of style. By becoming an athlete that has influence on and off the field, I want to grow interest in ski jumping among younger generations." Though he speaks with a soft tone, his resolve is strong.
"My assistant coach was my longtime rival and we've been together the whole way. There are now lots of jumpers competing in the World Cup from my generation, such as Naoki Nakamura. We've been helping each other improve at tournaments for a long time and these guys still give me a sense of drive. I want to work with them to grow the appeal of ski jumping. I hope we can follow in the image of our elders."
Before leaving, we ask Kobayashi what his dreams for the future are. "My top priority is taking the gold medal at the World Cup and Ski Jumping Week. I don't know how long I'll be able to do this, but I hope to keep jumping forever," he responds with an invigorating laugh.
We look forward to seeing how the future of ski jumping develops under Kobayashi and this new generation of ski jumpers.