The Yomiuri ShimbunFire was streaming from the back of Japan team captain Saori Kimura as she scored point after point against Italy in the women’s volleyball qualifier for the Rio de Janeiro Olympics on Saturday. At least, that’s the way coach Masayoshi Manabe saw it.
The 29-year-old outside hitter scored 31 points and set the pace on defense with steady receiving of serves during the key match at Tokyo Metropolitan Gym as Japan grabbed one of the four available spots to Rio in the eight-team, round-robin tournament, which served as both the world final qualifier and Asian qualifier.
“I was absolutely determined to make it [to Rio],” Kimura said after the match, which Japan lost 3-2. “We were able to come together as a team.”
The two sets Japan secured earned it a top-four finish in the qualifier with a game in hand. Fifth-place Thailand (3-3) had a chance to tie Japan (4-2) in win total, depending on the results of their final games, but after Saturday’s results, Japan held an insurmountable edge over Thailand in set ratio.
The young Japanese team — only four of its 14 members went to the 2012 London Games — was under heavy pressure during the tournament. Haruka Miyashita, the 21-year-old setter, admitted her hands were shaking at times.
The stress level was also high for Japan against Italy because the match became a neck-to-neck battle. After Japan took the first set 25-23, the following two sets both were tied at 24 points. However, it was Italy that had the strength to push through, taking both sets 27-25.
A loss in the next set would have meant Japan would have to decide its fate in the final match. And after reaching set point, Japan allowed Italy to rally and make the score 24-21. But it was Kimura who locked up the final point — the veteran, who has been to the past three Olympics, put the ball over the net to score.
“There was nothing to lose today,” Kimura said. “So I’ve decided not to be passive, and just keep on attacking.”
Said Manabe: “I felt as if I could see fire coming from Kimura’s back — it has been a while since the last time I’d seen that.”
A native of Tokyo, Kimura got into volleyball in her second grade at primary school. She played at Seitoku Gakuen High School (now Shimokitazawa Seitoku), known as a volleyball powerhouse. After graduation, she joined the Toray Arrows, helping the team win four domestic league titles.
She was chosen as a national team member in her second year at Seitoku, going to three straight Olympics starting with the 2004 Athens Games.
In 2012, Kimura propelled the women’s team to its first Olympic medal in 28 years, a bronze at the London Games.
After London, Kimura played in the Turkish women’s league. Manabe asked her to be the captain of the national team but, feeling a sense of accomplishment after London, she declined the offer, and told the coach of her intention to retire in January 2013.
Manabe continued to try and persuade her, and after months of consideration, Kimura changed her mind and assumed the captain role in May that year. It was the first captaincy of her entire career, but did not go well at first.
Kimura is known as a gentle person — not the kind who pumps up teammates and motivates them with passionate speeches. Japan finished seventh in the 2014 World Championship, and fifth at the World Cup.
“My own play was not good and I failed to lead the team. Maybe I thought about things too much,” Kimura recalled about the period ahead of the Rio qualifier.
But her teammates gradually got a better grasp of her style of leadership, for instance when she paid particular attention to them. At last year’s World Cup, Kimura distributed presents she made by hand to each of her teammates.
“Saori is the first one to practice and the last one to leave. We are all witnesses to her efforts,” one national team member said.
On the final day of Rio qualifying, Japan beat the Netherlands 3-2 to finish third in the tournament.
Japan entered the fourth set behind 2-1, and the Dutch reached match point three times. But Japan tenaciously rallied back to take the set 32-30. Riding that momentum, Japan took the final set to win the match.
Japan, though, did have its spikes occasionally blocked by the Netherlands, which had a number of 1.90-meter players.
“We saw nothing but problems we have to overcome. I think we haven’t reached a point where we are capable of winning a medal that has a brighter color [than bronze],” Kimura said about the Rio Games.