With the world's greatest athletes gathered in London for the Games of the XXX Olympiad, three members of the Japanese Olympic Team with ties to northeastern Honshu found their road to Britain harshly interrupted by the Great East Japan Earthquake on March 11, 2011, and the accident at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant. They have traveled from Fukushima to London, each with their own emotions, experiences and memories. These are their stories.
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The day the magnitude-9.0 earthquake rocked the Tohoku region, track training sessions were called off that afternoon at Fukushima University. There was no electricity. There was no information. Thirty-year-old Satomi Kubokura, who holds the Japanese record in the women’s 400-meter hurdles, wondered what to do, how she could help.
Kubokura was scheduled to attend a training camp in Okinawa a few days later. With parts of Fukushima in ruin and others in disarray, she did not want to leave.
“The day will come when you can do something for Fukushima," her coach told her. "Go. Continue your training.”
Satomi talked with fellow athletes many times, questioning whether it was OK to be training at such a time. The suggestion was made to raise donations at the airport for the disaster-stricken area, but Kubokura declined, feeling that the only thing she could do was compete.
“Collecting donations would have eased my mind, but I resolved to focus on my training," Kubokura says. "I didn't want to use the earthquake as an excuse to fail.”
In June that year, she broke her own national record, and this year, she won the national championship title to secure a place at the London Games.
Although Satomi is from Hokkaido, she has spent more than 10 years of her life in Fukushima.
“Since the earthquake, I’ve given a lot of thought to what I want to do through track and field," Kubokura says. "I’d like to give back to the place that helped me grow as an athlete.”
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Izumi Kato's family home is in the city of Fukushima. On the day of the deadly tsunami, she was training in Shizuoka. The images she saw on TV from Fukushima frightened her, and the 200-meter individual medley swimmer frantically sent text messages to her mother back home.
“There still seem to be aftershocks.”
“An evacuation warning for those within 3 kilometers was announced!"
"Isn’t it close to Grandma’s house?”
Izumi's grandmother lived in the town of Okuma, where damaged Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant is located.
Izumi's mother, Kanoko, did her best to reassure her daughter.
“We’re fine here," she texted. "Just take care of yourself and do your best.”
A month after the earthquake, Izumi did unexpectedly poorly at a meet. She worried that she couldn’t focus on swimming. She returned home during the long holiday in May and learned more about the situation in Fukushima.
“I wanted them to be honest with me," she remembers. "I was shocked because I hadn’t realized how bad it was.”
During the long break from swimming, she saw her old coach and friends. Ten days later she returned to her training. “Swimming is really the only thing for me,” she says.
A year later, she became the first swimmer from Fukushima Prefecture to earn a spot in the Olympics. With the situation in Fukushima still uncertain, she helped in a signature-collecting campaign to build indoor pools so children in Fukushima can swim in safety.
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Cyclist Yudai Nitta had been competing abroad on March 11. It was not until a month later when the 26-year-old was able to return to his family home in Fukushima Prefecture's Shirakawa.
The velodrome where he used to train had been badly damaged by the earthquake, and the roads he had cycled on every week were pitted and buckled. Wherever he went, he worried about radiation.
One after another, cyclists from the same area moved their training bases outside the prefecture. They asked Yudai to join them because of the danger, but he refused.
For the team sprint in London, Yudai paired up with Kazunari Watanabe, who is from the town of Futaba, Fukushima Prefecture.
“I now carry a lot of people’s emotions from Fukushima with me when I ride," Nitta says. "I want to prove to the world that Fukushima is all right.”
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