What is the power of sports? That was a question many athletes in Japan were asking themselves in 2011 following the March 11 earthquake and tsunami that devastated parts of eastern Japan.
With the London Olympics coming up this summer, a trying 2011 also had many athletes reflecting on the support they had been getting leading up to a major milestone in the careers for many of them. Will Japan's athletes find the strength to conquer the world this year?
This is the Part 1 of a series on how Japanese athletes have strengthened their ties with family, coaches and teammates ahead of the London Games. This first article focuses on three members of Nadeshiko Japan, who won the Women's World Cup in Germany last year.
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Just as a tumultuous year was coming to an end, snow was starting to fall in parts of Japan. With this as a backdrop in late December, Nadeshiko Japan defender Azusa Iwashimizu, 25, was playing in the All Japan Women's Football Championship as captain of the top women's league team, NTV Beleza. Iwashimizu would end her busy season--in which she and her fellow Nadeshiko Japan teammates won the Women's World Cup--with a loss in the semifinals.
"This was an eventful year with no time to rest," Iwashimizu said after the match. "I look forward to relaxing in Iwate (Prefecture)."
Iwashimizu was born in the village of Takizawa in Iwate Prefecture, a 20-minute drive from the prefectural capital, Morioka city. Ever since she moved to Kanagawa Prefecture, Iwashimizu has been visiting her 77-year-old grandfather Susumu Iwashimizu in Takizawa during summer and winter breaks.
"For me, Iwate is a place I will always have ties with," she said.
When she visits Iwate during the New Year's holiday, Iwashimizu participates in the New Year's Day marathon, in which participants run from the town hall to a local shrine. And she speaks the local dialect with her grandparents.
Iwashimizu has had the support of her entire hometown since she was first selected to represent Japan at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Local villagers made up 1,500 T-shirts to wear while watching the Olympics on a big screen set up in the school gymnasium. In the summer, villagers began sending Iwashimizu the village's locally grown watermelons.
The beaches of Miyako, where Iwashimizu used to enjoy swimming, were swept away by the March 11 tsunami triggered by the Great East Japan Earthquake. The powerful quake damaged more than 100 homes in the village of Takizawa. Some roads were so badly damaged that they were impassable.
Iwashimizu heard about the earthquake while she was in South Korea for a soccer match. She wanted to fly home right away, but she wondered what she could do for her town. Fortunately, she was able to confirm the safety of her grandparents soon after March 11. After days of mulling it over, she made a decision.
"I'm going to play on behalf of Iwate," she told herself. "I'm going to get a medal at the World Cup and go home to show it to everyone."
On July 17, the day before the World Cup final against the United States, Iwashimizu couldn't stop thinking about her hometown and other disaster-stricken areas in the Tohoku region. She realized that regardless of whether Japan won or lost, the final would be the last game of the tournament. When she got back to her hotel, she poured out her feelings on paper. Iwashimizu asked her father, who was in Germany to watch the tournament, to go into town to buy a Japanese flag. She then scribbled down every word of her message on the flag that night, writing:
"To everyone in Tohoku,
I have never forgotten. I constantly think about what I can do for you. This time, it was to deliver good results (on the soccer pitch). I will come home to Tohoku with my medal. Please wait for me there. Thank you so much for your support.
Let's walk toward recovery together! May the Tohoku Spirit live on!!"
Iwashimizu spent the most time on that last sentence.
"I didn't want to just say, 'Hang in there,' " she explained. "I wanted to stress that I am with them in spirit."
During the World Cup final, Iwashimizu made a sliding tackle on an American player late in the game in extra time.
"The willingness to fight for someone else gives us tremendous power to hang in there in the end," she said, looking back at the match.
The sliding tackle brought Iwashimizu the first red card of her entire career, but the play helped prevent Japan from giving up a goal and took the game to a penalty shootout. When the fourth Japanese player, Saki Kumagai, converted her kick successfully and sealed Nadeshiko Japan's first World Cup title, Iwashimizu ran to her teammates holding her Japanese flag.
"I wanted people in the disaster areas to see it," she said. The flag she emotionally waved that day has since been to the coastal cities in Iwate Prefecture that suffered the most from the March 11 disaster, such as Miyako and Ofunato. It is now on display at the Iwate Prefectural Government office.
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Even though she's a World Cup winner, Nadeshiko Japan member Mizuho Sakaguchi still gets treated like pretty much everyone else by her work colleagues, and that's just the way she likes it. At the factory where the 24-year-old midfielder works, there is a year-round routine employees must follow. They first change their shoes, then put on plastic suits, gloves and masks. They remove dust from their clothing with an air shower before entering a "clean room," where the temperature is set at 20 degrees and the humidity is 50 percent.
Sakaguchi works at Niigata city-based insulator manufacturer Namics Corp.'s factory in Shibata, Niigata Prefecture. Her job is mainly to wrap products. She works from 8:30 a.m.to 4:30 p.m., and is on her feet all day, except for a lunch break and smaller breaks in between. After work, Sakaguchi heads for Nadeshiko League practice with the Albirex Niigata Ladies club in Niigata city, and gets home around 10 p.m.
"I get really sleepy during work, but I get by somehow," she said of her hectic schedule.
The Osaka native came to Niigata--where she had no previous ties--in February 2010 after getting injured while trying out for teams in the U.S. as well as the temporary shutdown of teams she belonged to. She began working at her current job in August 2010. Quite shy by nature, Sakaguchi initially gave tickets to her games in Niigata to about 10 colleagues.
Hidekazu Maruyama, 38, Sakaguchi's boss who was the first to receive those tickets, fondly remembers Sakaguchi's matches.
"She kept passing it to the right places," Maruyama said. "I was amazed at how good she was."
Word of Sakaguchi's skills soon spread back at her workplace, and more and more acquaintances and co-workers began attending her games. Soccer also became a popular topic of discussion at the factory. Though Sakaguchi remains shy, turning bright red when her colleagues teasingly imitate her Osaka dialect, she has steadily blended in with her new co-workers.
In the summer of 2011, Sakaguchi's environment changed drastically following Japan's World Cup victory. She began getting constant requests for interviews and was recognized by strangers in the street. When she visited the company's head office after the World Cup, she was welcomed by all of the company's employees, many of whom asked her to pose for pictures and sign autographs.
Her colleagues at the factory, however, knew better than to treat Sakaguchi like a star.
"She doesn't like to stand out," said her boss, Maruyama. "We talked about it and decided to just welcome her back without treating her any differently than we did before."
When Sakaguchi returned to her workplace, she received no special welcoming ceremonies or flower bouquets. The only thing her colleagues did differently was to say, "Congratulations."
Sakaguchi sensed that her colleagues were being considerate.
"It was just as I had expected," she said. "Whether I won the World Cup or not, my colleagues would always treat me as a regular person."
Last spring, Sakaguchi turned down an offer from an overseas club.
"There are days when I don't want to go to work because I'm so tired, but my colleagues treat me so well, and my life is very satisfying. If there was a reason to leave Niigata, it would only be the cold weather," she said with a smile, looking at the piles of snow.
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Nadeshiko Japan captain Homare Sawa, a 33-year-old veteran, recalls a comment made by a teammate during the World Cup semifinals against Sweden. Sawa made an errant pass that was intercepted in the 10th minute, allowing Sweden to score its first goal.
Azusa Iwashimizu immediately told her, "It's OK, we still have lots of time."
"Iwashimizu is a special friend who has trained with me since the days when women's soccer was in very rough shape," Sawa says of her teammate and friend. "So I was really happy to hear her say that."
During the halftime break, Sawa told her teammates that she would personally make up for giving away that goal to the Swedes. She made good on that promise when she scored in the second half.
Sawa's impressive performance in Germany--she was named MVP of the Women's World Cup and was the top scorer in the tournament--could not have been achieved without the help of Sakaguchi, who teams with Sawa as a defensive midfielder.
"Sakaguchi plays strong defensively so I can focus on offense," Sawa pointed out. "I was able to make those plays because she was my partner."
Whenever reporters ask why Nadeshiko Japan was able to win the World Cup, Sawa always offers the same answer--"Solidarity."
In an Olympic year, playing together as a team will be extremely important as Sawa and her Nadeshiko Japan teammates aim to add a medal from London to their World Cup honors.
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