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.
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.