PYEONGCHANG, SOUTH KOREA – Speedskating star Nao Kodaira paid an emotional tribute to her late friend and former teammate Miyako Sumiyoshi on Monday, a day after capturing the women’s 500-meter gold medal at the Pyeongchang Winter Games.
Kodaira was left devastated after Sumiyoshi, who skated for Japan alongside Kodaira at the 2014 Sochi Olympics, was found dead in her home in Nagano last month aged just 30.
The cause of Sumiyoshi’s death and other details were not publicly disclosed, and the wake and funeral were held privately in line with her family’s wishes.
Fighting back tears at a packed news conference, which was preceded by a congratulatory phone call from Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Kodaira said, “She (Sumiyoshi) has been in my thoughts so many times (here). Of course I can’t forget about her. Even when I have tried not to think about her, she kept coming into my mind.
“But as captain of the Japanese delegation I knew I had to face my race with a focused state of mind.”
She added, “I don’t know whether it is OK for me to say this or not, but Sumiyoshi’s people told me before the Olympics that she had said to them if I get the gold it would be the same as her winning it.
“I actually won the gold medal but I wanted to tell her about it in person, and it is such a shame that I am not able to do that.”
Sumiyoshi was in the same year at Shinshu University as Kodaira, who in addition to winning the 500 gold in an Olympic-record time also won the silver medal in the 1,000 last Wednesday.
Sumiyoshi failed to make the team for Pyeongchang.
Kodaira upstaged two-time defending Olympic champion and close rival Lee Sang-hwa in front of the South Korean’s home fans to win the women’s 500 gold.
Kodaira’s gold medal was Japan’s second of the Pyeongchang Games after Yuzuru Hanyu completed his comeback from an ankle injury to successfully defend his men’s figure skating title on Saturday.
Kodaira’s gold was the first by a Japanese female speedskater and Japan’s first in the sport since Hiroyasu Shimizu won the men’s 500 on home ice at the 1998 Nagano Olympics.
Kodaira also broke a jinx and became the first Japanese Winter Olympic team captain to win a gold medal.
“When I accepted the offer to be captain I felt a bit shy because I am not very good in front of people and I had heard the jinx about captains not being able to win gold medals,” Kodaira said. “To be honest I didn’t want to be the captain but (coach Masahiro) Yuki-sensei persuaded me and I wondered what I could learn from the experience in the future.
“I took on the role and didn’t really think about the gold-medal jinx and just focused on what I had to do. Now that the competition is over for me, I can lend my support to the team and I will be getting behind the men in the (speedskating) 500 tonight.”
Kodaira was widely expected to win the 1,000 gold, having set the world record in December at a World Cup race in Salt Lake City, but she made no mistake in her favored 500. The victory extended her winning streak at that distance to 25 domestic and international races.
Kodaira’s gold raised Japan’s medal total here to 10, matching the nation’s previous record set at home in the 1998 Nagano Olympics.