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KICK-STARTING KUMAMOTO / Athletes aim to cheer up quake-hit areas with performances at Rio

The Yomiuri Shimbun

Daisuke Narimatsu said his mission is to deliver good news to disaster-hit areas in Kumamoto Prefecture.

The Yomiuri ShimbunBoxer Daisuke Narimatsu is set to enter the Rio de Janeiro Olympics with one thing on his mind: using his fists to boost the level of fight in the people of Kumamoto Prefecture, which is struggling in the aftermath of a series of earthquakes that hit about three months ago.

“My job is to deliver good news to the disaster-stricken areas,” the 26-year-old, who will make his first Olympic attempt at Rio in the men’s lightweight division, said between workouts at the Self-Defense Forces Physical Training School in Nerima Ward, Tokyo.

Narimatsu arrived at the city of Kumamoto, his hometown, on April 14 to deliver the news he had earned a berth to Rio during the Asia-Oceania qualifier about two weeks prior.

That night, though, the city was rocked by a magnitude-6.5 foreshock of the Kumamoto Earthquake. When a magnitude-7.3 tremor — the biggest in a series of quakes — hit the city in the early morning of April 16, Narimatsu was at home in his room. As furniture fell on top of him, Narimatsu imagined a worst-case scenario.

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“I thought I was going to die there,” Narimatsu recalled.

The tremor soon subsided, and Narimatsu made sure all of his family members were safe. However, strong aftershocks continued. The family evacuated to a nearby primary school but soon realized it would be difficult to stay there with Narimatsu’s 84-year-old grandfather.

After several nights spent in a car, they returned home but all five family members slept in the first-floor living room so they could make a quick escape if necessary.

Narimatsu grew up in Kumamoto and started boxing while in high school. The days were never easy — he sometimes had to overcome disappointment on his own after crushing defeats.

“The reason I was able to continue in this sport so long is the support of my family, friends and other people from my hometown,” Narimatsu said.

“I want to stand on the top of the podium at Rio and deliver [more] good news to them.”

Overcoming hardship

Keirin racer Seiichiro Nakagawa is set to represent Japan in the men’s cycling sprint at Rio, his second Olympic appearance. He finished ninth in the event at the 2012 London Games.

Nakagawa, who is part of the Kumamoto branch of the Japan Professional Cyclist Union, shares the same feeling as Narimatsu. “There’s only one thing we can do [for Kumamoto] — to race,” he said.

The 37-year-old was in Shizuoka Prefecture for a competition when the disaster hit his home in Kumamoto. His mother, wife, and two children were at the residence at the time, but were safe.

Flights to and from Kumamoto Airport and traffic on expressways were restricted after the string of strong quakes, so Nakagawa had to fly to Fukuoka Prefecture and return home via a friend’s car. His house avoided serious structural damage, but the inside was a mess.

A race track in Kumamoto suffered damage in the disaster, making it unusable for workouts. He was chosen by the Japan Cycling Federation as a national team member for Rio about a week before, but he had to practice on surface streets that were crowded with cars, including those carrying supplies.

“It was tough. I felt people were looking at me thinking, ‘Wow, cycling in this situation?’” Nakagawa said.

Despite the experience, Nakagawa feels that the cries of support for him have grown since the Kumamoto Earthquake.

“I hope people will forget about their hardships, at least during the time when we race. We hope our efforts boost people’s motivation in the effort to reconstruct,” Nakagawa said.

Aim to deliver joy, smiles

Shuttler Akane Yamaguchi hails from Katsuyama, Fukui Prefecture, but she calls Kumamoto her “second hometown.” The 19-year-old found out about the disaster when she was out of the country during a competition.

Yamaguchi graduated from a high school in Katsuyama in March and joined the badminton club the next month at Saishunkan Co., a drugmaker based in Mashiki, Kumamoto Prefecture, in April.

The Kumamoto Earthquake occurred about two weeks after she joined the club. After coming back to Japan, she took part in a charity event in Katsuyama to raise money for Kumamoto. She also volunteered to distribute food at an evacuation site in Mashiki, aiming to help the locals by doing what little she could.

Yamaguchi is scheduled to enter Rio as the youngest Japanese Olympics shuttler in history. She pledged to do her best, saying, “What I can do is very little, but when I play badminton, I can try to bring energy and courage to the disaster-hit areas. I will smile and work hard.”Speech

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