Japanese sprint queen Nao Kodaira clinched the gold medal in the women's 500 meter speed skating race at the Pyeongchang Games on Feb. 18, bringing home her country's first ever Olympic gold in women's speed skating.
"I wanted to see the smiles on the faces of those who came here to cheer me on, but I was crying too much to recognize them," Kodaira said after the race.
The sight of Kodaira and her archrival Lee Sang-hwa of South Korea, who finished with the silver, hugging each other after the race also left a lasting impression on spectators both inside and outside the venue.
What's striking is that Kodaira earned the gold at age 31, making her the oldest gold medalist in Japan's Winter Olympic history. Even though athletes today enjoy longer careers thanks to advances in sport training theory and medical and scientific support, their physical strength normally peaks in their late 20s. Yet, Kodaira set a record by clocking 36-plus seconds in the 500 meter race at a low altitude rink -- a feat of a different dimension proving her a runaway victor.
Japan's medal count in the ongoing games has reached 10, including Kodaira's gold, tying with the country's own record reached in the Nagano Winter Olympics in 1998. Medals of every metal shine equally, but those earned by Japan's women in speed skating out-sparkle others, as this country won exactly zero of those at the 2014 Sochi Games, men or women.
The Pyeongchang Games is also record-breaking in itself, as the ratio of female athletes taking part reached a record high of 41.6 percent. For Japan, this is the second consecutive winter games in which the team featured more female athletes than male. Although the Japanese women's speed skating squad has eight members -- fewer than at Sochi 2014 or Vancouver 2010 -- the team managed to bring their past four years of effort to fruition with their solid results at Pyeongchang.
Under the guidance of her longtime coach Masahiro Yuki, Kodaira maneuvered her way to the top of the Olympic podium after training with athletes at Shinshu University, her alma mater.
Another Japanese speed skater, Miho Takagi, took the silver medal in the women's 1,500 meter race and bronze in the 1,000 meters at Pyeongchang. She steadily built up her power to compete against world athletes after she joined Japan's newly established national team.
In men's figure skating, defending champion Yuzuru Hanyu and Olympic newcomer Shoma Uno pulled off a stunning one-two finish. Most of Japan's top figure skaters have experience at the Japan Skating Federation's training camps held every summer for the past 25 years or so to discover promising talents. Such efforts and other low-profile but consistent activities by relevant organizations have contributed to Japan's high-flying figure skating squad.
The strong showing of Japanese athletes in this Winter Games also owes a great deal to nationwide moves to improve training environments ahead of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics. As the Pyeongchang Games enter its final phase, it is hoped that our exuberant cheers will encourage Japanese athletes competing in South Korea.