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Meet Noriaki Kasai, one of these Winter Games' rock stars

Noriaki Kasai finished 26th overall in Saturday's normal hill individual ski jumping event. EPA Photo

PYEONGCHANG, South Korea -- It was Feb. 9, 1992. Elton John's and George Michael's duet of "Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me" was at the top of the U.S. singles charts. West beat East 153-113 in the 42nd NBA All-Star Game with Magic Johnson named MVP after coming out of retirement. And over at the Winter Olympics in Albertville, France, Noriaki Kasai began his love affair with ski jumping.

And in the days running up to his record eighth straight Winter Games, it was natural to wonder what the secret was behind his longevity. "A strong heart," was his answer.

So, as the 45-year-old sat on the start bar on a brutally cold February evening at the Alpensia Ski Jumping Stadium, you could see the Kasai effect. On the two banks of stands on either side of the jump, Japanese flags were waved. Movement by spectators was sporadic, rare as watchers clutched arms to themselves to keep warm (the temperature was nudging minus-10 degrees Celsius, 14 degrees Fahrenheit).

Before Kasai's run, there were cheers, then silence, as he flew through the night sky before the crowd roared again upon his safe landing. His smile was instantaneous as the camera approached; but with a flash, he was gone, as he joined other competitors back into the warm after a sympathetic official let Kasai circumnavigate the throng of reporters.

Of the 50 competitors taking part in the normal hill event Saturday, 24 were not yet born when Kasai took that first Olympic jump back in 1992.

"Noriaki's the greatest of all time," American ski jumper Casey Larson, 26 years Kasai's junior, told ESPN. "He's the man. He's so much fun to have around. He's such a positive person, such a great ambassador for Japan and ski jumping as a whole."

Kasai would not add to his previous three Olympics medals (two silver, one bronze) on Saturday after finishing 26th overall in the normal hill event. But there are still records that stand next to his name: the most Olympics, the most starts at the World Championships, the oldest competitor to win a medal at the Games in ski jumping and to perform in a World Cup. He ties the record for the longest gap between gongs -- 20 years between his silver at Lillehammer 1992 in the team long hill, and his silver and bronze at Sochi 2014.

But what underpins it is an unwavering drive to someday secure the elusive Olympic gold medal, and a deep love for the sport.

The next generation are reaping the benefits. He now coaches two of the current Japan ski jumping contingent at the club level, Yuki Ito and Ryoyu Kobayashi. Others look at him for inspiration. Japan's Daiki Ito has joked that Kasai "is not a human being" and is thankful Kasai's star power takes pressure off the rest of the team. Janne Ahonen says although he is "only" 40 years old, Kasai has shown, "everything is possible" as to whether the star will return for Olympics No. 9 in Beijing in 2022.

What gives these Games added significance is it is the first time he has competed in front of his family. His wife, Reina, and 2-year-old daughter, Rino, are here in Korea. "The medal I don't have is a gold; that's what I'll be aiming for this time," Kasai recently told reporters before Saturday's event. "I want my daughter to see me win a medal with her very own eyes." Two opportunities remain -- Saturday's large hill and then Monday's team event -- but Kasai has already been talking about competing in Beijing and maybe in 2026 if Sapporo, his home city, is awarded the Games.

As for Saturday, the music was different than what was topping the charts back in 1992. But Kasai's passion burns ever brighter, the body still willing. No medal this time, but another chapter in one of the most remarkable of Olympic stories.