The Yomiuri ShimbunTopping the podium at the recent All-Japan speed skating sprint championships, Nao Kodaira was savoring the joy of regaining a title she had once taken for granted.
The 30-year-old won the two-day meet held through Dec. 29, beating Miho Takagi, the young skater who had snapped Kodaira’s winning streak at four the previous year.
Kodaira was dominant in the 500 meters, clocking 37.70 seconds, the best time recorded by a Japanese skater on a domestic rink, on the first day. She also won the 500 the next day in 37.91, and finished second in the 1,000 on both days.
“I had been standing there [the top spot on the podium] in the past, but today I had a deep sense that this isn’t something that’s guaranteed,” Kodaira said, reflecting on a slump she went through last season.
Following a fifth-place finish in the 500 at the 2014 Sochi Olympics, Kodaira moved her training base to the Netherlands in search of improvement. However, she could not adjust to the diet and living environment in a foreign country — her body fat increased and she suffered from food allergies.
As a result, she was unable to register even one podium finish in individual events at World Cup meets last season, and was fifth at the All-Japan sprint championships.
She returned to her birthplace of Nagano Prefecture last April. She prepared her own meals, and gradually her weight and body fat improved, eventually reaching ideal figures. As her physical condition improved, she stepped up her performances.
She won the 500 meters at the World Cup opener in November, notching her first Cup title since 2014 and second overall. But that was just the beginning — she added three more 500 titles at Cup events through December.
Kodaira proved her struggle in the Netherlands was not in vain. At the All-Japan single-distance championships in October, Kodaira completed a 500-1,000 double.
“I didn’t go to the Netherlands to fail. I had meaningful seasons there,” she said after winning the 500 meters.
Coach Masahiro Yuki noticed a change in her on the ice. “Her skating in the straightaway was totally different — she gained speed there,” Yuki said.
Kodaira said she absorbed efficient movements from the Dutch skaters.
“I didn’t pick it up through words — I watched how they skated, and tried it myself and absorbed it,” Kodaira said.
She also improved her mental skills while there, learning how to channel her nerves before a race. An encounter with Dutch coach Marianne Timmer, who won gold medals in the women’s 1000 and 1,500 meters at the 1998 Nagano Olympics, was especially memorable for Kodaira.
“I am trying to emulate the intensity shown in Marianne’s eyes,” Kodaira said after notching her third Cup win this season at a meet in Nagano in November.
Hot passion for ice
Kodaira was born in Chino, Nagano Prefecture, and had skates on at 3.
The young Kodaira was infatuated with the joy of moving faster than when running on land, and joined a local skate club after entering elementary school. Kodaira went to the rink even on days when the club was off, and continued skating until employees played the closing music at 8:30 p.m. As if it was her job, it was her daily routine to put away pylons before leaving the rink.
Kodaira first drew attention when she was a second-year student in junior high school, beating high school and university skaters to win the overall title at the All-Japan junior sprint championships.
She made her Olympic debut at the 2010 Vancouver Games, helping Japan’s women win the silver medal in the team pursuit.
Four years later, as a medal hopeful in individual events, she made the team that went to the Sochi Olympics, but her best result was fifth in the 500. That prompted her to head to the Netherlands, which dominated with 23 speed skating medals in Sochi.
The days of mediocre results are now over, but Kodaira is still not satisfied. Big events are scheduled this year, among them the World Single Distances Championships in Gangneung, South Korea, a trial event for the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics, and the Asian Winter Games in Sapporo.