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Friday, July 27, 2012

Disaster ordeal, Tohoku's plight drive Japan's Olympians


Fencer Kenta Chida lost his best friend to the March 2011 tsunami, cyclist Kazunari Watanabe's family has been split up by the nuclear crisis and world shooting champ Tomoyuki Matsuda owes thanks to fellow disaster survivors.

News photo
Banzai!: Cyclist Kazunari Watanabe attends a sendoff ceremony June 22 in Koriyama, Fukushima Prefecture, before departing for the London Games, with a flag full of messages of support from natives of his hometown, Futaba, in the background. KYODO

Such personal experiences may push them further at the London Olympics as they hope to hang on and cheer up the quake- and disaster-ravaged Tohoku region.

The resilience of people in the area has spurred many Japanese athletes to give all they have at the greatest sporting show on Earth before a global audience.

Japan's underdog women's soccer team won the 2011 World Cup in Germany after coach Norio Sasaki showed them images of the devastation in a video that ended with the question: "What can we do ourselves?"

Now they are aiming for a golden double in London with Tohoku-born defender Azusa Iwashimizu, 25, vowing, "I will fight not just for myself but for all people in Tohoku."

Of Japan's 293 Olympians, about a tenth are directly related to Tohoku by having been born or schooled in the region.

Matsuda, who won the 50-meter pistol and the 10-meter air pistol at the 2010 world championships, has no background links to the area but experienced the catastrophe firsthand.

"I have been given strength by seeing how the disaster areas are recovering," said the 36-year-old police officer from Yokohama, who finished eighth in the 50-meter pistol event at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. "I want to get a medal and give strength back to the region."

He was practicing at a firing range ahead of the national championships in the coastal city of Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, when the 9.0-magnitude temblor struck offshore and unleashed monster waves on March 11.

He evacuated to a nursing home for the aged and spent a night trapped in the city after the tsunami swallowed large areas and left 4,000 residents dead or missing. The calamities claimed more than 19,000 lives throughout the entire region.

"I wasn't sure about what was going to happen to me," Matsuda said, referring to the horrific scenes he watched on television during his 400-km journey home.

Just a few weeks later, he won the 50-meter pistol and the 10-meter air pistol at the World Cup in Sydney, feeling that it was "my duty" to participate in the event.

Chida, the fencer, learned that his hometown, the major fishing port of Kesennuma also in Miyagi, was devastated by tsunami while on the road in Germany. His best friend since childhood, Satoru Onodera, was killed by the waves.

Chida said that after he finished a disappointing 11th place in foil fencing at the Beijing Olympics — where teammate Yuki Ota grabbed silver — Onodera was the one who consoled him when he visited Kesennuma after the games, telling him that "it will be your turn in London. Go get a medal no matter what next time."

Chida, who turns 27 next month, eventually regained his form and finished second at the Asian championships four months after the March 2011 tragedy.

"I will only be able to freely show my gratitude for my best friend and my longing for my hometown when I hold a medal in my hand in London," he said.

Cyclicst Watanabe, who finished 12th in the individual sprint in Beijing, used to live just 3.5 km from the wrecked Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant along with his wife, parents, grandmother and the family of his older sister.

When the natural disasters crippled the plant's cooling systems and sparked three reactor meltdowns, Watanabe, a keirin professional racer, was at a training camp in Tokyo ahead of the world championships.

The radiation emitted from the No. 1 plant's wrecked reactors has since forced tens of thousands of residents to evacuate. It remains unclear if they will ever be able to return.

About 7,000 locals had to flee from Watanabe's hometown and relocate nationwide, and his extended family is currently scattered across three separate locations.

He still managed to place fifth in the keirin and fourth in the team sprint at the world track cycling championships last April, creating a new role for himself among his former fellow residents and boosting his Olympic medal hopes.

"I will bring a medal back this time and hold a victory celebration with you," Watanabe vowed to a sendoff ceremony attended by about 150 of his former neighbors.

"I thank Watanabe for being a driving force to unite a town that has been divided in so many ways." Futaba Mayor Katsutaka Idogawa said at the event.

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