The Yomiuri ShimbunWearing a grin from ear to ear, Saori Kimura waved her hands again and again to the adoring fans who shouted her name as she exited the court following what turned out to be the last professional volleyball game of her career.
Kimura’s Toray Arrows were eliminated from the women’s V Premier League’s six-team playoff after falling 3-1 to the NEC Red Rockets on March 5 in Yokohama.
The loss meant the final farewell for the 30-year-old, who had previously announced plans to retire at season’s end.
Kimura, a longtime star since she played on the national team at 17, declined to comment about her retirement immediately after the game.
“It’s still an emotional thing for me,” she said. “My only thoughts [to this point] were about winning and playing more games.”
Kimura gave the Arrows a boost with her trademark steady service reception, something that helped the team win the first set. She was sidelined in the fourth set with cramps in both legs. However, Kimura cheered the team on from the bench until the bitter end.
She made her Olympic debut at the 2004 Athens Games when she was a third-year student at Shimokitazawa Seitoku High School in Tokyo.
Kimura joined Toray after graduating from high school. In the 2009-10 season, she helped the squad complete a three-peat in the V Premier League — becoming the first women’s team to accomplish that feat — and was named MVP.
She has long been the pillar of Japanese women’s volleyball because of offensive skills that feature a strong ability to read the blocks of the defense and adjust where she hits the ball, as well as being strong on digs to go along with what she does on the receiving end of the service game.
Kimura propelled Japan to win its first medal in 28 years at the 2012 London Games — her third Olympics — when the team won the bronze medal.
After London, Kimura played in Turkey, and subsequently considered retiring from the sport. However, she changed her mind after being persuaded by then national team coach Masayoshi Manabe.
“You’re the only one worthy of being the team captain,” Manabe told her.
As the team leader, Kimura helped guide Japan to the quarterfinals at the Rio de Janeiro Games, but missed out on consecutive medals as the team lost there.
After returning from Rio, Kimura decided to make the 2016-17 season her finale, using her blog in October to announce her plans to retire. “I want to end my career with Toray,” she said.
The team had a sub-par start this season. “The possibility of playing in the relegation playoff had once crossed my mind,” Kimura said.
However, the team was able to recover, finishing the season in sixth to advance to the playoffs. “All of us looked forward, and we were able to regroup in the end,” Kimura said as she made her way off the court after her last match.Speech