VANCOUVER, British Columbia – For figure skater Miki Ando, who gets started in her quest for Olympic gold at the Vancouver Games in the women’s short program on Tuesday, there are three people who she definitely holds closest to her heart.
Her deceased father and grandmother, and a brave 9-year-old boy named Sotaro Kakumu, who passed away last fall after a lengthy battle with a bowel-related illness.
She will have each of them in mind when she takes to the ice, trying to dazzle the crowd with an angelic performance to Mozart’s “Requiem” at Pacific Coliseum in her second Olympic appearance.
Sotaro, who was born in Ando’s hometown of Nagoya, spent most of his life bedridden due to improperly functioning organs and was unable to ingest meals regularly.
Needing multiple organ transplants, he was left with little choice but to travel to the United States for surgery.
Ando sent Sotaro a letter in January 2008 after reading a newspaper article requesting donations to fund his transplants. The 2007 world champion helped with the fundraising effort that reached a target of ¥120 million in just six months.
“His eyes were sparkling. I asked myself how on earth is a child with such a severe illness able to maintain such strong eyes,” said Ando, talking about the first time she met Sotaro at a Tokyo hospital in February the same year before he left for the United States.
Ando had just won the bronze medal at the Four Continents meet three days prior and hung the medal around Sotaro’s neck. “This is one step in the progress of my growth,” she told him.
Sotaro, whose dream was to someday be able to eat a hamburger, had a gift for Mikity, as she is affectionately known, as well. He gave her his handmade salmon “onigiri”, or Japanese rice ball, which she ate in a taxi on her way home.
This was right around the time Ando was struggling with her appetite because of an obsession with controlling her weight. “I ate all of the onigiri that Sotaro gave me.”
After his surgery, Sotaro was transferred from a hospital in Miami to New York in August 2008. Ando, whose training base was an hour’s drive away, would visit Sotaro between practices just to chat.
But there were complications and Sotaro’s condition took a turn for the worse at the end of September. Hearing the unfortunate news, Ando changed her scheduled appearance in an ice show and raced off to the hospital.
Sotaro had already lost consciousness. Ando left the room briefly, returning with the hamburger Sotaro had talked about. But her little friend, who had just turned 9, had already taken his last breath.
“I know that Sotaro is always looking down at me from above,” Ando said. She still keeps a photo on her cell phone of the onigiri he gave her.
The 22-year-old Ando, who is hoping to erase the disappointment of a 15th-place finish at the Turin Olympics, had to come to grips with the untimely death of her father, Mikitaka, due to a traffic accident when she was just 8 years old.