The day of the Great East Japan Earthquake is one judoka Shizuka Hangai won't soon forget.
The March 11 earthquake damaged her home in Iwaki, Fukushima Prefecture, and her family had to be evacuated to Niigata Prefecture to escape the leaking radiation from the damaged Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.
If things were not already bad enough, the same day the soon-to-be college graduate opened an e-mail from a company in Tokyo that had promised her a job, only now the firm was withdrawing the offer.
A student at the National University Corporation Tsukuba University of Technology, the 24-year-old could only stare blankly at the e-mail in her college dorm room, not knowing what to do or where to go.
Hangai had been planning to train for the Paralympics while working for the Tokyo firm, but the company’s only explanation for canceling the job offer was, “We have enough people.”
To her rescue came, Naoya Ogawa.
The 44-year-old Ogawa won a silver medal at the 1992 Barcelona Games and was now running a judo school in Chigasaki, Kanagawa Prefecture.
“At the time, everyone was thinking about how to help disaster victims," Ogawa says.
He hired Hangai as an administrative staff member for the Ogawa dojo support group, which consists of local firms.
Hangai was given the good news 19 days after the earthquake. She says she was more worried about whether she could do the job rather than relieved about finding employment.
Hangai was born with weak eyesight. She started studying judo in junior high school because she “couldn’t play sports that used balls.” While training with other judoka, she learned the one-arm shoulder throw that became one of her main weapons.
At her new training environment, however, Ogawa encouraged Hangai to avoid the one-arm shoulder throw in order to acquire a variety of skills. He taught her basic techniques that required using her legs and hips. Initially, Hangai looked as if she was confused about how to incorporate her new skills into the judo style that she was used to. But Ogawa continued to patiently insist that she practice the new skills.
Hangai soon got into the swing of things, and she began to enjoy practice. During the final round of selections for the Paralympic Games in May, Hangai won a berth to represent Japan in the 52-kilogram division with a "harai-goshi" sweeping hip throw she learned from Ogawa.
Ogawa still remembers how lost Hangai looked when she first started training at his dojo, always waiting for someone to hold her hand and lead her to the mats. The biggest lesson he might have taught her was to take the initiative--that in the end, the only person one can rely on is oneself.
“I want her to capture glory with her own hands,” Ogawa says.
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