PYEONGCHANG, SOUTH KOREA – Sprint queen Nao Kodaira is set to take center stage in women’s speedskating events at the Pyeongchang Olympics, with the seemingly unstoppable 31-year-old’s form making her the favorite to take the 500- and 1,000-meter gold medals.
Japan’s Olympic team captain is unbeaten at home and abroad in a 24-race streak over 500 meters stretching back to last season and has won three out of four World Cup races in the 1,000 this term, including a world record-breaking victory in Salt Lake City in December.
Kodaira’s best Olympic performance in individual events is a fifth place — in the 1,000 and 1,500 meters at the Vancouver Games in 2010 and the 500 in Sochi.
Two months after the relative disappointment of that performance in Sochi, Kodaira moved to the Netherlands alone and spent two seasons working to raise her game, a decision that has since paid rich dividends.
“I was just curious as to what was waiting for me (in the Netherlands),” she said. “I simply thought I’d like to take the best of both Japan and Holland. There is a limit to what you can be given by others but there is no limit to what you can discover for yourself.”
She learned in the European lowlands that quality, not quantity, was key in training.
“I was of the mindset that (in order to become a top skater) you have to train twice as much as everyone else and carry something heavier with you,” said Kodaira, who focused on cycling more than ever before during her time in the Netherlands. “But everything turned out to be the complete opposite.”
Much has been made of the rivalry between Kodaira and two-time Olympic champion Lee Sang- hwa, but Lee has played second fiddle to Kodaira after knee trouble and other issues began to slow the South Korean down.
Kodaira, though, has played down the rivalry, saying at the start of this season, “I give no thought whatsoever to that. Every skater exists in a world where what’s important is pushing yourself further.”
Asked about the demands she faces in trying to win gold medals in Pyeongchang, she said, “More than that, I want to skate as well as I can.”