Olympics / Winter Olympics

Japan’s Olympic medalists give thanks for support in Pyeongchang

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Staff Writer

One day after the Winter Olympics concluded in Pyeongchang, the Japanese delegation returned home Monday and its medal-winning athletes expressed their gratitude to the fans for their warm and enthusiastic support.

Team Japan amassed 13 medals in South Korea, its most ever in one Winter Games, surpassing the 10 it earned on home soil in Nagano in 1998. The team also racked up 43 top-eight finishes at the games, which was also an all-time high for the nation.

“This is evidence that this was the best Team Japan ever,” delegation chief Yasuo Saito said at a news conference with 14 of Japan’s medal-winning athletes at Tokyo Midtown Tower on Monday evening.

“I wasn’t able to compete at Sochi four years ago, and with that frustration in mind, I was staking my skating life on these games,” said Miho Takagi, who captured medals of all colors in speedskating competitions in Pyeongchang. “I had worries and fears, but I was encouraged by messages I received from Japanese citizens, my friends and family, so I could fight through until the very end. This is the result of the support I received from so many people. I have nothing but the utmost appreciation.”

Yuzuru Hanyu, who became the first man to win back-to-back Olympic figure skating titles in 66 years, said the gold medal felt even more valuable because he managed to win it “with the support” of so many fans.

“After I won it, a lot of people said to me, ‘Congratulations,’ ” said the 23-year-old star, who achieved the feat after a three-month layoff from competition due to injury. “That’s genuine happiness for me.”

Nao Kodaira, the captain of the delegation, insisted that she will remember the Pyeongchang Olympics as a time when she bonded with teammates and fans.

“There are a lot of things in life, but I felt that people can connect with others,” said the 31-year-old, who earned a gold and a silver medal in the women’s speedskating competitions. “It was an unforgettable 17 days of my life.”

But some athletes were a little disappointed by the medals around their necks.

Snowboarder Ayumu Hirano, who once again came up short with a silver medal in the men’s halfpipe after also finishing as runnerup in Sochi, said that he would use it as motivation going forward.

“The medal I won this time was the same color for the second consecutive time,” the 19-year-old calmly said. “But it was a games where I realized that I still have issues to correct and there’s still a long way to go. And I would like to make snowboarding bigger than what it is now.”

Ski jumping bronze medalist Sara Takanashi finally obtained an Olympic medal after failing to get on the podium four years ago in Russia. But she felt like she didn’t achieve her goal this time either.

“I wouldn’t have won (the bronze medal) without the support of a lot of people,” Takanashi said. “I didn’t reach my goal, which was to win the gold medal. But I would like to win gold four years from now to repay them.”

Satsuki Fujisawa, the skipper for the Japanese women’s curling team, which earned the country’s first-ever medal in the sport after finishing third, said she had fulfilled her childhood dream to compete at the Olympics and had enjoyed the moment, rather than getting too caught up on winning.

But she added that, as she watched the gold-medal contest between Sweden and South Korea, she regretted that her team could not be on that stage.

“I think that we will be able to use the frustration as the driving force going forward,” the Kitami, Hokkaido, native said. “And it will also be our objective.”

Yasuhiro Yamashita, a former judo gold medalist who served as the vice chief for the delegation, emphasized that female athletes came through relatively better at this Olympics. In fact, eight of the 13 medals were earned by women.

The delegations officials believed that the positive performances and results by Japanese athletes in Pyeongchang would boost the country’s athletes toward the Pyeongchang Paralympics next month and the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics.

“We think that we have handed the baton to those who will compete at the Pyeongchang Paralympics and 2020 Olympics in a better fashion,” general director of the delegation Hidehito Ito said.