RIO DE JANEIRO – As the first Japanese to make four Olympic volleyball teams, Saori Kimura is burning to improve on her team’s 2012 bronze-medal finish.
The wing spiker, a high school student when she made her Olympic debut in Athens in 2004, turns 30 a day before the Aug. 20 final, and is relishing the chance to lead her team out for the first time at the Olympic Games as captain.
“The feeling is totally different from four years ago. We’ll all stick together, aiming for the medal with a better color than we won in London,” said Kimura, who dropped 31 points on Italy at the final qualifying tournament in May, when the women secured a 12th Olympic berth, tying them with the United States for the most ever.
The Japanese, ranked fifth in the world, returned to the Olympic podium for the first time in 28 years in London, where they hammered South Korea in straight sets in the bronze-medal match. Masayoshi Manabe’s charges will open against the same team at Ginasio do Maracanazinho.
After the Group A opener on Aug. 6 against their ninth-ranked Asian rivals, the Japanese will face Cameroon (28), reigning champion and host Brazil (2), Russia (4) and Argentina (12).
A top-four finish will see Manabe’s charges through to the quarterfinals in the 12-team competition. The top-ranked United States and third-ranked China will likely be waiting along with two other teams from Group B, which is rounded out by Serbia (6), Italy (8), the Netherlands (11) and Puerto Rico (17).
Kimura leads a 12-member squad with just four London veterans — middle blocker Erika Araki, 32, and wing spiker Saori Sakoda, 28, keeping their places alongside 33-year-old Mai Yamaguchi who can operate in both positions.
Miyu Nagaoka, 25, was the top scorer for Japan in four of seven matches during the final qualifiers, scoring 21 against the Dominican Republic and 25 against the Netherlands. Sakoda, who scored 24 against Thailand, will also provide firepower alongside Kimura.
Manabe said he “wanted to emphasize defense” upon announcing his squad in late June and backed that up with the inclusions of Arisa Sato, 27, and Kotoki Zayasu, 26, both of whom are predominantly liberos.
Setters Kanami Tashiro and Haruka Miyashita, a wing spiker pair of Yuki Ishii and Yurie Nabeya as well as middle blocker Haruyo Shimamura complete the Japan team seeking a seventh Games medal having won two golds (1964, 1976), two silvers (1968, 1972) and two bronzes (1984, 2012).