Japanese women’s volleyball has been given a golden opportunity to resurrect its half-forgotten Olympic glory with a youthful squad led by a passionate head coach.
The team is building up for the Games in an enthusiastic atmosphere, unseen in recent memory, after Japan booked a ticket to Athens by winning a qualifying tournament in May, for its first Olympic appearance in eight years.
Twenty-eight years have passed since the Japanese women last won the gold in Olympic volleyball in Montreal, to match the memorable feat by the “Oriental Witches” at the 1964 Tokyo Games.
A new generation of attackers, who spearheaded Japan’s successful qualifying campaign, head the squad of 12 players who are hoping at least to match the bronze medal from Los Angeles in 1984 — Japan’s last podium finish.
Megumi Kurihara, who came into the limelight at last year’s World Cup along with Kana Oyama as a 19-year-old attacking duo, played a pivotal role in Japan’s quest for an Olympic berth that included victories over 2002 world champion Italy and archrival South Korea.
Oyama lost her place in the starting lineup in most of the qualifiers, but came off the bench to nail a team-high 13 points against Nigeria and impress national head coach Shoichi Yanagimoto.
“Our mission is to win a medal. I’ve trimmed what must be trimmed and added what must be added,” Yanagimoto said of his selection policy when he announced his final Olympic squad in June.
“No relief or safety is guaranteed for anyone on the national team,” he said.
A former Olympic team setter, Yanagimoto became the women’s national coach in the spring of 2003 when the team was mired in a rock-bottom slump, having missed the Sydney Olympics and made a rare first-round exit at the 2002 World Championships.
He soon became known for his passionate coaching style — on and off the court — and his no-compromise approach to turning around the national team.
His emotional outbursts at regular meetings have become a daily ritual during tournament tours or training camps, as the head coach attempts to stir up the fighting spirit of his players.
After the qualifying meet, Yanagimoto moved back to the drawing board in his game plan and gave all candidates equal opportunities to vie for places on the final squad for Athens.
Captain Tomoko Yoshihara was no exception, as the 34-year-old veteran had to survive battles with younger, lesser-known players.
Yoshihara, who had not played for Japan for seven years before Yanagimoto took charge, is one of a handful of players recalled by the coach to the national squad.
Libero Ikumi Narita and 159-cm tall setter Yoshie Takeshita came out of retirement and put their disappointment at failing to qualify for Sydney behind them to join the team for Athens.
The Japanese women will face Brazil, the bronze medal winner in Sydney four years ago, in their Aug. 14 opening match in Athens before playing Italy, host Greece, South Korea and Kenya in Group A of the preliminary round.
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