PYEONGCHANG, South Korea -- Despite difficult conditions, Nao Kodaira took the gold medal and also smashed the Olympic record in the women's 500-meter speed skating on Feb. 18.
The Gangneung Oval's low altitude and high atmospheric pressure make it a tough place for records to be broken, but with a time of 36.94 seconds -- 0.34 seconds faster than the previous record -- Kodaira, 31, became the first woman to complete the 500 meters at a low-altitude rink in under 37 seconds.
"I feel as though I've been rewarded for all my efforts," said Japan's Olympic captain, who has been skating since the age of 3.
One key reason behind the sprint queen's success is arguably her decision after the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics to become more independent, and to train in the Netherlands.
Prior to Sochi, Kodaira had been training under Shinshu University professor Masahiro Yuki, 52. She first learned of Yuki when she was 11, while he was working for the Japan Skating Federation, supporting speed skater Hiroyasu Shimizu during the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics. Shimizu, who won gold in the men's 500 meters at Nagano, and Tomomi Okazaki, who earned bronze in the women's 500 meters, inspired Kodaira to become a speed skater. And it was through them that she quickly became aware of Yuki.
Finding out about Yuki, she later decided to study at Shinshu University in her native Nagano Prefecture in order to train with him. The two developed a strong partnership, and the speed skater sometimes called the "Angry Cat" insisted that Yuki remain her coach when she was searching for a job toward the end of university.
However, Kodaira's relationship with Yuki changed after Sochi. Finishing fifth in the 500 meters, and 13th in the 1,000 meters, she decided to train in the Netherlands, a speed skating powerhouse. Their connection did not end completely, though. Yuki would find time in his domestic coaching schedule to visit Kodaira in Holland, asking for meetings to be interpreted from Dutch to English, and then explaining the details to Kodaira in Japanese.
Half a year later, though, Kodaira decided to start learning Dutch. She would carry a notebook during mealtimes.
"I would get my team mates to write the Dutch words for spoon, salt and so on. I made a rule of remembering a word after hearing it three times," she revealed. In her second year, she became able to cope with meetings, and absorbed knowledge on training and sports medical science on her own. Her development even prompted Yuki to quip, "This really is 'Rangaku' (Dutch learning), isn't it!"
Kodaira, who is currently coached by Yuki, reflected on her Dutch experience by saying, "In the past, if I had a concern, I would go straight to Yuki. However, my two-year spell in the Netherlands helped me to become more independent."
Commenting on her incredible record-breaking race on Feb. 18, the Angry Cat said, "I wanted to prepare so that I would be able to enjoy the view ahead of the finish line," adding, "My eyes were so full of tears (afterward) that I couldn't see everyone's faces."
Kodaira becomes the first Japanese person to win a gold medal in Olympic speed skating since Hiroyasu Shimizu in 1998, and the first Japanese woman to do so ever.