Namiko Yanagawa, who lost her hearing at age 1, led the women’s national volleyball team for the deaf and hard-of-hearing until last year, and is well-versed in the challenges the sport poses to those with hearing difficulties.
“Since players are not capable of talking to each other during a match, they communicate with sign language during a timeout,” Yanagawa, 28, said via written messages. “But they won’t be able to play well if they fail to discuss enough until each of them is fully satisfied.”
Yanagawa’s passion for the sport goes back to childhood, but she first learned of volleyball for deaf people — which follows the general competition rules — during her first winter at university.
She quickly proved herself capable and won a place on the women’s national deaf volleyball team. She became captain in 2010.
Despite her love of the game, Yanagawa, from Sendai, once considered leaving the team after learning that members of her family and friends had been caught up in the March 11, 2011, earthquake and tsunami that heavily damaged the Tohoku region.
Around that time, she received an email message from her coach, Tatsuyuki Imai, who was battling cancer, that told her to “think about what you can do for the affected area.”
Imai died shortly afterward.
“I was very shocked with his passing, but he made me realize what I hope to do is to encourage victims through volleyball,” Yanagawa said.
Last summer, she took part in the Deaflympics — an international sports event for deaf and hard-of-hearing athletes in Sofia, Bulgaria — and returned home with the silver medal.
After the event, many people stopped to tell her how impressed they were by her performance.
“I felt like I finally understood what message the coach wished to deliver to me,” she said.
Having left the team, Yanagawa is now back home living with her parents and grandmother in Miyagi Prefecture. She spends much of her time visiting local schools for children with special needs to teach volleyball to the hearing-impaired.
“I hope I can help them understand how enjoyable it is to play on a team,” she said, adding she hopes to see children who she’s instructed win the gold medal in the future.