Olympic soccer hopeful Jun Endo remembers shivering uncontrollably as she watched on TV as Japan beat the United States in the FIFA Women’s World Cup final in July 2011.
The match took place just four months after she experienced the Great East Japan Earthquake disaster as a fourth grader living in Shirakawa, Fukushima Prefecture, and Endo remembers telling herself she was “definitely going there” one day as a member of the national team.
Endo was in the locker room after gym class when the powerful earthquake struck. Almost all the windows at the school smashed and the ground in the schoolyard split open.
“We all panicked. I thought I was going to die,” she recalls.
Her house was not destroyed, but her life changed drastically, as did those of her friends, some of whom had to evacuate their homes.
Endo belonged to a soccer club managed by her father Atsushi, but because of strict safety limits for outdoor activities set after multiple meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, they could not train outside for a whole year.
They would go from one indoor facility to another, and on days when they could only use a public hall, players would cram into a small space with traditional Japanese tatami flooring and practice their ball juggling.
Endo says the experience taught her to control the ball precisely and dribble in tight spaces. Although her team had to travel far to play games, she was able to persevere with help from some of the same people who continue to support her now.
Despite fond recollections, she also had her share of tough times.
“There were days I thought about quitting,” she said, recalling facing discrimination against Fukushima residents from out-of-prefecture players and feeling frustrated at not being able to play soccer freely.
She was buoyed through the hard times by her dream of joining the Japanese women’s national team, Nadeshiko Japan, which beat the odds in 2011 and brought joy to the tsunami-hit nation.
Endo spent her junior high and high school days with JFA Academy Fukushima, a player-development academy that temporarily moved its base to Shizuoka Prefecture after the quake.
The 20-year-old attacker earned a spot on the women’s national team for the first time in November 2018, and now plays for Japanese powerhouse Nippon TV Beleza.
Endo learned that losing is an important lesson in sports and in life. At 19 years old, she became the youngest player to make the 2019 World Cup squad, but felt the pain of an earlier-than-expected exit from the last 16 of the tournament in France.
Now she is competing for one of just 18 roster spots for the Tokyo Olympics, but feels physically and mentally up to the challenge.
“To be honest (when I was first selected) I felt like I had an excuse because I was the youngest player,” Endo said.
“But you won’t survive with a mindset like that. Even if you’re the youngest, you can’t allow yourself to be upstaged by the older players.”
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