YOKOHAMA – There may still be three years to go until the Tokyo Olympics, but Japan women’s softball national team head coach Reika Utsugi and players Yukiko Ueno and Eri Yamada are already psyched up.
Because they absolutely know how big of a deal it is for their sport to be in the Olympics.
Speaking at a news conference on Monday for an upcoming three-game series between Japan and the United States, the two veteran players said the Olympic tourney would be important for the sport, which was announced as one of the events to be included in the Tokyo Games last summer, and for them personally as they prepare to host the 2020 Games.
“We have the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, and hopefully we will get off to a good start toward it as a team,” said right-hander Ueno, who helped Team Japan capture its first-ever softball gold medal at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
In this summer’s series against the U.S., the first two games will be played at Shellcom Sendai on June 23 and 24 and the third will be held at Yokohama Stadium, which will be the site for the sport at the 2020 Games, on June 25.
Taeko Utsugi, Japan Softball Association vice president and a board member for the World Baseball Softball Confederation, said the game at Yokohama especially would be a “good opportunity as a rehearsal for 2020.”
It will be the second straight year the two powerhouse nations square off against each other in an exhibition series. Japan won 2-1 against the Americans last year. The first game at Tokyo Dome drew over 30,000 fans and the Japanese team members hope this year’s edition repeats that success.
“I remember getting goosebumps and was moved so much while taking the field,” outfielder Yamada said of the contest at the Big Egg. “We won’t have a lot of opportunities to play against the U.S. before Tokyo, so we want to play with the Olympics in our head.”
Japan has an automatic berth at the Tokyo Games as “the defending Olympic champion” from 2008, with the sport having been excluded from the last two editions of the sporting extravaganza. Utsugi, a two-time Olympic medalist who has served two stints as the team’s head coach, said they would shoot for nothing but another gold in Tokyo.
But majority of the members who achieved glory in Beijing have moved on and there are issues to fix if they hope to win gold again.
Utsugi, 53, who was born in China and naturalized as a Japanese citizen in 1995, said pitching remains the country’s biggest strength. But in order to beat the U.S., which is likely to be Japan’s biggest rival in Tokyo, Japan will need to step up offensively as well.
“When I played at Sydney,” Utsugi, a former slugging third baseman, said, recalling the Summer Games of 17 years ago, where the team came up short of the gold medal (Japan fell 2-1 to the U.S. in the championship contest). “We could’ve won the championship had we had another hitter like myself.
“With that in mind, I’ve coached my players. We won the gold in a two-run game (3-1 against the U.S.) in Beijing as well. So if we score three runs (or more), we have a better chance to win. Leading up to the 2020 Olympics, it’ll be important for us to hit more extra-base hits.”
Softball and the national team drew enormous attention in Japan after the gold-medal performance in Beijing. But the spotlight eventually faded and the players have not had a chance to regain it with the sport missing from the last two Olympic programs.
Of the 20 who were announced for the Japan-U.S. series, Ueno and Yamada are the only players who were part of the squad in Beijing.
Ueno, who became a heroine when she pitched 413 pitches combined in the final three games and guided Japan to the gold medal in Beijing, said the memory has remained vivid in her mind. She wants to make a similar one in Japan.
“It will be an Olympics held in Japan, so I think that we are going to have to shoulder a pressure that we didn’t feel in Beijing,” the 34-year-old said. “But as a player, I know how exciting it is to be cheered and receive such high expectations from people, so I hope softball will be back where it was at the time.”
Yamada, a left-handed hitter dubbed “the female Ichiro,” is motivated to provide even bigger inspiration to her native country in 2020 than at the Beijing Olympics.
“I’m not saying I wasn’t playing seriously while the game has been excluded from the Olympics,” the 33-year-old Yamada, who has played in the U.S.’s National Professional Fastpitch League, said. “But when you have a big goal, it really pushes you. And regardless of how old I will be, I have a strong desire to win a gold medal one more time, and by achieving that, I believe we’ll be able to send messages to a lot of people.
“I wouldn’t be who I am today without the gold medal from the Beijing Olympics, and would like to convey my experience (to my teammates).”