The Yomiuri Shimbun SOCHI—The Sochi Olympics is the second Winter Games for ice hockey player Yoko Kondo, who also played in the 1998 Nagano Games, but the 34-year-old says she still feels like a rookie.
No wonder, because the veteran player, who has long been used to competing against powerful foreign scorers as a defenseman, was switched to the position of forward ahead of the Sochi Games.
The Sochi Games is the second Olympics for the Japan women’s team, on which Kondo is the only player to have experienced the 1998 Nagano Games.
On Feb. 2, the Japan team practiced at the Sochi venue for the first time. Kondo said memories from 16 years ago crossed her mind as she played at the rink. “I was overwhelmed by the pressure at that time. But I can calmly assess my surroundings now,” Kondo said.
Everything has changed for women’s ice hockey in Japan over the past 16 years. There was no consistent training program for the national team in 1998. “It wasn’t much different from a hobby,” a team official recalled.
“We weren’t at a level capable of winning against foreign teams [at the Nagano Games]. We didn’t have a clear goal, either,” Kondo said.
“It’s totally different now. Now we have a clear strategy to win a medal.”
Kondo said she herself didn’t have enough physical strength to vie against foreign players 16 years ago. “I’ve focused my training on physical strength since then,” she said.
Since then, Kondo has become one of the best defensemen in Japan, but she will play as a forward in Sochi, as the Japan team doesn’t have enough qualified players for the position.
In January last year, head coach Yuji Iizuka tried Kondo as a forward at a friendly match, and her skillful play met Iizuka’s expectations.
“She has a good body size,” Iizuka said about Kondo, who is 160 centimeters tall and weighs 60 kilograms. “She also has powerful shots and good speed. There’s nothing to worry about,” he said.
Kondo said her full-fledged practice as a forward started only this December. “It’s amazing that I’m a rookie now,” she said.
However, Kondo is confident she has enough experience to play well in an unfamiliar position to guide her team to its first win at the Olympic Games. “The way you try to take the puck away is the same. I can also utilize some other skills I learned as a defenseman. I’m good at sprinting, too.”