Saori Kimura: Japan’s rising volleyball superstar

When the Women’s World Volleyball Championships came to Toyko last month, hopes were high for the host side.

Ranked number five overall, a place on the podium would have been a great result, and the team would need its stars to raise them to such great heights.

To infinity and beyond

Luckily for the host nation, Japan’s best players are also among the world’s best.

Spiker Saori Kimura is the team’s top scorer. Her nickname “Nippon no mirai Saorin Mugendai” or “Infinite Saorin” (Japan’s future) tells us exactly how much she means to Japan volleyball.

She is backed up by the team’s setter and stalwart, Yoshie Takeshita. Despite standing only 5’2″ (159 centimeters) tall, Takeshita was the defending MVP of the 2006 World Championships.

That said, nobody would have faulted the team for falling short of a medal.

But driven by their two stars and an emotional boost from hometown fans throughout the tournament, Japan pulled off a well-earned bronze. Kimura finished as the tournament’s second-best scorer while Takeshita was the second-ranked setter.

Even more remarkable was that Japan came within only a few points of doing even better, giving fans worldwide some of the most entertaining matches in the history of the sport.

Challenging the powerhouses

While both powerhouses Russia and Brazil (winning gold and silver respectively) proved that they occupy the uppermost echelons in women’s volleyball, Japan showed that despite being a just a little bit smaller, they aren’t so far off from being the very best in the world.

In the bronze medal match Kimura’s 28 points pushed Japan to a dramatic five-set win against a talented U.S. squad in front of a packed house at Yoyogi stadium to capture third place in the tournament.

Having dropped the first set Japan had their backs to the wall early, but Takeshita wasn’t phased:

“Even though we lost the first set, the mood wasn’t so bad. Switching our mind to the next set very fast made us able to play better.”

Japan’s greatest female athlete?

The tiny Takeshita was referred to in a recent local magazine article as quite possibly “Japan’s greatest female athlete” and her five blocks in the November tournament are an astounding testament to her skills.

When Japan knocked off Asian rivals South Korea in second round play, player Kim Yeon-Koung tipped her hat to the veteran setter saying “Takeshita wasn’t only good today, she’s always good.”

But Japan’s resilience, first seen in an epic come-from-behind shocker against Poland in the first round, is often dependent on Saori Kimura’s performance. No stranger to dramatic story lines, she was in the national spotlight even before the tournament began.

Dramatic times

A TBS drama titled “Ashita mo mata ikiteiko” aired just before the tournament, and told of Kimura’s close friendship with high-school teammate Yumika Yokoyama who tragically died of cancer in 2008.

The Japan team played inspired volleyball throughout the tournament, very nearly knocking off world number one Brazil in the semis, going the distance in a five-set marathon in what’s already being called one of the greatest matches in volleyball history.

Going into that match many expected that Japan would be crushed.

But the 6’1” (186cm) Kimura felt they had a genuine shot to reach the gold medal match.

“From the start, we really believed we weren’t going to lose. We played very well at first. It is excruciating to lose in the end,” said Kimura.

The tournament final saw defending champs Russia beat the Brazilians. Both were unbeaten until that match.

The dominant Russians who knocked out Japan en route to the championship, did so by targeting Japan’s dynamic duo.

The right combination

Coach Vladimir Kuzyutkin admitted after the match that “the combination of Kimura and Takeshita is very strong and we wanted to break that.”

It’s mind boggling to consider that the 24-year old Kimura is a star who’s still rising.

And while super-setter Takeshita is 32 years of age, she has fittingly set her squad up for greatness even beyond these championships.

Look for Japan to be right in the thick of things in World League and World Grand Prix competition in 2011.

Canadian volleyball star Sarah Pavan moves to beach game in Olympic quest

Sarah Pavan is among the world’s best volleyball players and perhaps the best Canada has ever produced. But she’s never been an Olympian.

So the 26-year-old from Kitchener, Ont., traded the indoor game for the sand and the sun of beach volleyball, and hopes her decision will help her achieve the “only thing missing.”

“I’ve set goals for myself in pretty much everything my whole life, and being an athlete, going to the Olympics has obviously been the ultimate one,” Pavan said. “It’s tough when you set all the goals and you work hard to achieve them, and the one that you want more than anything keeps eluding you.”

The 26-year-old from Kitchener, Ont., finished ninth in her beach debut with partner Heather Bansley of London, Ont., last month at a FIVB World Tour event in Argentina. Their second FIVB Grand Slam event is this week in The Hague, Netherlands.

Pavan had played for Canada’s senior indoor team since making her debut as a 16-year-old.

The 6-foot-5 lefty starred at the University of Nebraska, winning the Honda-Broderick Cup as the NCAA’s top female athlete — in any sport — in 2007. She led the Cornhuskers to a 33-1 season and an NCAA title while maintaining a 4.0 grade-point average in biochemistry.

She’s since played around the world and earlier this year, led her Rio de Janeiro-based indoor team Unilever to the Brazilian League title.

At the national level, however, Canada hasn’t had a women’s indoor volleyball team in the Olympics since 1996, Pavan and her teammates finishing third in a qualifying tournament it needed to win to make last summer’s London Games.

Watching the Games from home, Pavan was intrigued by the Olympic beach tournament being played in front of its breathtaking backdrop at Horse Guards Parade.

“It definitely piqued my interest,” Pavan said. “Watching the Olympics, it looked like something that if I put enough work into, then yes it could be a possibility. I definitely thought it would be worth a try.”

Enter Bansley, who was suffering from some Olympic heartbreak of her own. Bansley and then-partner Liz Maloney narrowly lost to Annie Martin and Marie-Andree Lessard for Canada’s one women’s beach berth at the London Games.

“That kind of inspired me more to make it for Rio in 2016,” Bansley said of missing the Games. “If anything, I wanted to not just qualify for the Olympics, and go to the Olympics, I wanted to qualify and do well and be on top of the podium at the Olympics.”

Bansley knew of Pavan by reputation — “She’s very well known,” Bansley said. And when the indoor star contacted Bansley seeking information on acquiring a beach partner, the 25-year-old Bansley had a suggestion.

“How about me?”

Her split with Maloney wasn’t easy.

“It tough, Liz and I played three seasons together, and we had a lot of successes and I think we’re a great team, but in terms of timing, timing-wise with Sarah coming to beach and it being the start of a new Olympic cycle, I really wanted to give it a shot with Sarah,” Bansley said. “Liz has been struggling with an injury all this year, so it was a good opportunity for me to try out this partnership with Sarah and for Liz to get healthy as well.”

Pavan was thrown into the competitive fire, playing against some of the world’s best in Argentina after only a couple of weeks of training with Bansley. Her new partner, however, said Pavan’s a quick study.

“Skillwise, she’s got great ball control and that’s helps on the beach, and she moves really quickly for someone of her size,” Bansley said. “What I really like about Sarah is her competitiveness, and I think it matches mine and in that way, we’ll be a really good team.”

Pavan played the opposite position — meaning she lined up opposite the setter on the right side — in indoors. Her job was to score points and score them efficiently. The beach game, she said, requires a lot more finesse and placement of the ball.

“Which is completely against all the instincts that I have,” Pavan said. “From having played indoor for so long, it’s just like: finish it now. It’s hard to remember ‘Don’t try to finish the play right away. Just let it come to you.’ And there are two people on the court so communication is key. You have to be able to do every skill and execute every single skill well, whereas indoor, you can hide your weaknesses a little bit more.”

Pavan has few weaknesses, although that hasn’t stopped her from beating herself up during training.

“She’s been very hard on herself,” Bansley said. “I can relate because I’m kind of a similar-minded athlete. I think it’s also hard because she really respects the other players and athletes and the level at which they play. But she doesn’t give herself enough credit as to the calibre of athlete that she is at.”

Following this week’s tournament, the two will head to Rome for a FIVB Grand Slam event, then on to the world championships July 1-6 in Poland.

The Canadians have modest expectations for their first season together, and still have three-plus years to go in their shared quest for a spot on the Rio Olympic team.

But the two say their partnership has already breathed new life into their respective volleyball careers.

“It’s exciting,” Pavan said. “It’s nice to mix it up and explore new possibilities in the sport.”

“It’s a fresh start with a new partner and so it’s challenging me to come out of my comfort zone as well,” Bansley said. “It’s trying to share my knowledge with Sarah about the beach game, and so it’s new and I always like something new and challenging. It’s fresh.”

Why I Won’t Pay For Club Volleyball

During a recent dinner one of my friends asked, “Why do you pay so much for club volleyball?, Below is a summary of my answer, I wanted you to know what I really “pay” for and what I hope you gain from these experiences. The truth is I never intend to pay for club volleyball.

I pay to assure that you pushed beyond your perceived limits. I pay professional coaches to challenge you at every practice and match. I pay them to push and challenge you to the point where you might want to quit because it is so tough. I pay them to build up your confidence at the same time so you don’t. I pay them to coach you in volleyball because I understand that your self-assurance on the court transcends to your everyday life. I pay for you to learn how to set goals and chase down dreams. I pay your coaches to help install a high level of self-confidence that you can and will accomplish the goals you set for yourself. I pay so you have more caring and responsible adults involved in your life. I pay for the days when you arrive at home exhausted from school and you don’t really want to go to position training/weights/plyo-metics, but you do it anyway. I pay for the life lessons that losses, frustrations, and disappointment from competition can provide. I pay for life lessons, victories, and personal/team accomplishments that competition can provide. I pay for these opportunities because I do not have to push or force you to play volleyball, rather your desire to play is unequivocally intrinsic.

I pay for you to have opportunities to take pride in your actions on and off the court. I pay for you to be accountable to others (coaches, teammates, club directors) and to help you understand that you are not the center of the universe. I pay for the opportunity for you to honor your teammates and coaches by always giving your best effort on and off the court. I pay for you to have the leadership opportunities volleyball offers. I pay to provide opportunities for you to help everyone around you improve as a person and teammate. I pay for you to understand that you will forever be surrounded by more talented people and less talented people, and that a true leader has the humility and patience to work with both. I pay for you, my daughter, to learn that it is the accumulation of hours upon hours of practice combined with numerous personal sacrifices to be an overnight success.

No it is not club volleyball that I am paying for, I am paying for the time and conversation with a teenage girl on the way to and from practice. I pay for the smiles and sense of purpose that playing club volleyball provides you. I pay to provide lifelong memories from traveling and going to new places with me. I pay for you to experience new cultures, foods, and cities that we experience by traveling to tournaments. I pay because its clear that volleyball sparks your life, passion, and sense of pride. I pay for help in guiding you down the right path. I pay because club volleyball reinforces the life lessons about hope, compassion, hard work, and commitment to yourself and others, that your mom and I have taught you, and continue to model for you.

Most importantly I pay for the bridge of understanding that volleyball provides a father and daughter.

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