CALGARY, ALBERTA – Nao Kodaira won the overall title on Sunday at the World Sprint Speed Skating Championships, writing her name in the record books as the first Japanese woman to achieve the feat.
The 30-year-old Kodaira, won three of four races — two 500- and two 1,000-meter races — held over two days at the Olympic Oval to be crowned the overall champion while rewriting a world record for total points won with 146.390.
“I’m really happy to have won an event where you need all-around strength to skate both the 500 and 1,000 meters,” said Kodaira, who flew to Canada on Wednesday, the day after claiming her second gold at the Asian Winter Games in Sapporo.
“Positive memories lead to motivation. But it’s too early to get excited as I feel I can get a lot better,” she said, adding that she is looking ahead to the Pyeongchang Winter Games in February 2018 where she is aiming to set a world record.
On Sunday, Kodaira clocked a winning time of 36.80 seconds in the 500 meters and finished third in the 1,000 meters in 1 minute, 13.17 seconds after winning both distances with national records a day earlier.
Her victory marked the first time in 30 years a Japanese skater had won the overall title, since Akira Kuroiwa claimed the men’s overall title in 1987.
Kuroiwa, whose first of two overall titles came in 1983, praised Kodaira for the decisive victory where she showed her class as a speedskating veteran despite missing out on a clean sweep of all four races.
“I think it was a valuable win. She’s been through a lot, like moving to the Netherlands, but that has molded her into an athlete with (mental and physical) balance. I look forward to seeing how she does at next year’s Olympics,” said Kuroiwa.
Eriko Sanmiya and Sayuri Yoshii placed second overall in 2001 and 2010, respectively, and two others have placed third but no Japanese woman had ever occupied the top spot in the rankings.
Now finally having her turn to sit at the very top, Kodaira says she is still hungry for more, revealing that watching Hiroyasu Shimizu win gold in the men’s 500 at the 1998 Nagano Olympics, when she was an elementary school student, made her the person she is today.
“While there’s a time faster than mine, the goal is far ahead. I haven’t been able to skate either the 500 or 1,000 in the world’s fastest time. I have what it takes to improve my mark,” she said.
Lee Sang-hwa of South Korea holds the world record of 36.36 seconds in the women’s 500 and Brittany Bowe of the United States holds the world record of 1:12.18 in the 1,000.
Kodaira, who turns 31 in May, feels that she has yet to reach the peak of her career and is not concerned that she is being chased by a younger generation of skaters.
“My career is like a slow-motion replay compared to other skaters, but I’m surely moving forward. It’s typical of me and I don’t mind the pace at which I’m moving,” she said.
American Heather Bergsma won the 1,000 on Sunday to deny Kodaira a four-race sweep and finished second in the overall rankings with 147.185 points, with Jorien ter Mors of the Netherlands taking third with 147.495 points.
Also for Japan, Maki Tsuji, who placed third in her second 500 race, was sixth overall, while Erina Kamiya was 12th overall.
In the men’s field where Kai Verbij of the Netherlands won the overall title, Ryohei Haga finished 12th for Japan’s best performance.
In the two-day meet, each skater took part in two 500 and two 1,000 races, with the champion determined based on the cumulative ranking.