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Japan women set to meet Sweden in Olympic opener

by Jack Gallagher

Staff Writer

Japan’s women’s hockey team held its final practice Saturday morning before its opening game against Sweden on Sunday.

Japan is making its first appearance at the Olympics since the 1998 Nagano Games, when it qualified as the host nation, and is considered a medal contender.

After opening against the Swedes, Japan will meet Russia and Germany in its other preliminary-round games.

Coach Yuji Iizuka thinks with so many young players on his squad that it may be a case of mind over matter when it comes to competing here.

“Since this is the first Olympics for most of the players in the team, the most important thing is mental training so they don’t feel anxious or intimidated,” he stated after the practice.

Iizuka noted that a specialist has been brought in to prepare his charges.

“We have a mental coach who works with the players to support them and give them confidence,” he said.

Defender Yoko Kondo was a member of the team that lost all five of its games in Nagano, but believes the outlook is brighter this time around.

“I think we’re more professional,” she said. “This team is not as rushed. We are more prepared and focused on training and winning.”

Kondo is thankful to get a second chance to compete in the Olympics.

“During Nagano I couldn’t show my full potential, and I was a bit resentful,” she commented. “I was younger and a bit more impatient and a bit too excited.”

The Aomori native says she won’t hold back when the puck drops for real.

“This isn’t revenge, but I want to show my full strength here,” she said.

Kondo has let her young teammates know that playing here won’t be easy.

“I told them to prepare for the pressure,” she said. “The Olympic atmosphere is special and still great even though it can be stressful.”