With fencing in her blood, veteran Chieko Sugawara has come out of retirement, putting her job as a teacher on hold to gear up for her third Olympics this summer.
"I felt a sense of accomplishment after placing seventh in Beijing," said Sugawara, who temporarily retired from international competition after the 2008 Beijing Olympics. "I felt compelled to return to my job at the school that allowed me to take a leave of absence."
Sugawara, 35, has been teaching gym at Kesennuma High School in her hometown in Miyagi Prefecture. She continued competing and winning at the national championships after 2008, something she hoped to use as inspiration for her students.
Last spring, the Federation Japonaise d'Escrime, or the Japan Fencing Federation, invited Sugawara back to the national team.
"At first, they wanted me as a coach," explained Sugawara, who played on the softball team in junior high school, but took up fencing in high school.
But right before moving to Tokyo to fulfill the federation's request, the Great East Japan Earthquake struck on March 11, 2011, causing severe damage to Kesennuma, her hometown.
Sugawara debated whether to leave or stay, but headed for Tokyo at the urging of her mentors and colleagues.
Soon after, the federation asked her to return as a competitive athlete. Sugawara had second thoughts due to a decline in her stamina and because she felt she should allow younger fencers to represent Japan. But she ultimately decided to aim for her third Olympics.
At the 2004 Athens Olympics, she lost in the second round. She placed seventh at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
In the women’s foil event, 38-year-old Italian Valentina Vezzali will be gunning for her fourth consecutive Olympic gold. Sugawara hopes to prevent that. She defeated Vezzali in a team event at the World Championships five years ago and led Japan to its first medal at the time (a bronze).
"I guess I'll just have to defeat her again in London," Sugawara said jokingly, while still maintaining the fierce expression of a fighter.
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