Just over a year after giving birth to her first child, Yuka Osaki decided to return to the court with the goal of representing her home country at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
The provisional Japan women’s national team is currently holding a training camp at Tokyo’s National Training Center leading up to the upcoming Olympic Qualifying Tournament.
Japan, which has already secured a spot for the Tokyo Games as the host, will compete in Belgium, one of four venues for the event. The world’s 10th-ranked Akatsuki Five have been assigned to the same group as Belgium, Canada and Sweden. The tournament will be held Feb. 6-9.
Japan coach Tom Hovasse has called up some new faces for training camp to see if some of them can potentially add some depth to the team in the run-up to the Olympics. But the selection of Osaki shocked the media with just six months to go until the games.
Osaki got married in 2017 and left the Women’s Japan Basketball League’s JX-Eneos Sunflowers, for whom she had played for nine seasons after graduating from high school. Since then, she has not played for a club.
Osaki, who turns 30 in April, got pregnant and gave birth to daughter Ema in late 2018.
After becoming a mother, Osaki confessed that at the beginning she just wanted to work. But her passion to be back on the court eventually grew.
As a result, she became determined to aim for a return to the national team “around September” last year.
If childbirth had happened a little later, she would not have been motivated to play for Japan at the Olympics.
“Considering the timing of my childbirth, I could not overlook such a big stage like the Tokyo Olympics,” said Osaki, who helped Japan reach the quarterfinals at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics and complete a three-peat at the 2017 FIBA Women’s Asia Cup.
Osaki told Hovasse that she wanted to attempt a comeback.
She said that it was “lucky” that Hovasse, who has coached her while serving as an assistant and head coach for JX and the national team, remained at the helm from her previous stint on the national team.
“If it wasn’t for Tom, maybe this did not happen,” said Osaki, the 2012-13 WJBL MVP and scoring champion.
For Hovasse, who has been the national team’s bench boss since 2017, it didn’t matter if Osaki was a veteran coming off a long layoff or not. The 52-year-old felt Osaki could provide valuable experience and consistency off the bench for the squad.
That said, Hovasse pointed out that Osaki hasn’t been guaranteed a spot, and the training camp, which concludes on Jan. 30, is a “tryout” for the 185-cm center.
Osaki said that she primarily practiced individually before joining the provisional national team.
Which is, of course, one reason it is taking time for her to restore her basketball skills.
But thankfully, all her past experiences with the Sunflowers and the national team have helped her catch up with other players on the Akatsuki Five.
“Of course, I need to do fine-tuning,” the Tokyo native said. “But my body remembers how I should play.”
Osaki is fully focused on this training camp and has not given a thought about what she would do if she does not make the final 12-player roster for the Olympic Qualifying Tournament.
But Osaki, who struggled a little to find a childcare provider for her daughter before making up her mind to return to the court, hopes that she can give some influence other female athletes in Japan, who might want to return to competition after giving birth.