TOMAKOMAI, Japan (Reuters) - Tomoko Sakagami delivered pizza to finance her ice hockey dreams but cheese crust pepperonis will be the last thing on her mind when she takes to the ice as part of the Japanese women’s team at the Sochi Olympics.
Taking odd jobs was the only way many women on the team could earn the money with the flexible hours needed to pursue their Olympic ambitions in a country where ice hockey, like most other sports, lives in the shadow of soccer and baseball.
Japan has about 2,100 registered female and 7,700 male players. The women’s only previous Olympic appearance was as hosts at the 1998 Nagano Games where they lost all five games, scoring two goals and conceding 45.
But qualifying for the February 7-23 Sochi Games has brought the Japanese squad, dubbed “Smile Japan,” both unaccustomed fame and full time job offers, which could give the world’s 10th ranked team the edge they need for a shot at a medal.
After they qualified for Sochi the Japanese Olympic Committee threw its weight behind them, helping all the players, except students, find full time work at companies and businesses willing to hire Olympians.
“Under my new employment clause, practice time is included in my working hours. I am more stable financially and comfortable mentally,” said 28-year old goalkeeper Azusa Nakaoku, who was promoted to full time employee at the sporting goods shop where she works after Japan earned qualification.
The players need to support themselves financially but also required flexible working hours to attend practices, training camps and games.
Qualification for Sochi has brought sponsorship money flowing in but prior to that, team members had to pay for their own equipment and each had to pitch in 50,000 yen ($490) when the team played abroad.
“Caring for my body is the toughest part of continuing to play hockey at this age, and the extra few hours I now have each day for chiropractic treatment or a hot bath makes a significant difference,” goaltender Nakaoku said.
The extra hours to practice also translates into more time for the team’s ace forward Hanae Kubo, 31, to hone her shooting skills before Sochi.
Kubo made her national team debut in 1996 and is Japan’s all-time leading scorer with 28 goals, but she hung up her skates after a loss to China in their final qualification group game cost Japan a place at the 2010 Vancouver Games.
‘QUITE A RIDE’
The World Cup winning run by the Japanese women’s soccer team in 2011 helped inspire Kubo’s return.
Captained by veteran striker Homare Sawa, “Nadeshiko Japan” outplayed a star-studded U.S. team in a nail-biting final that lifted Japan four months after the devastating earthquake and tsunami of March 2011.
“Sawa’s ability to score goals (at the World Cup) when it mattered moved me. I wanted to return to the big stage after seeing that,” said Kubo, who is often likened to Sawa.
Coming out of retirement, Kubo juggled hockey with a part time job as a skating rink desk clerk. In February she helped Japan qualify for Sochi by netting two goals in their 5-0 victory over Denmark.
Kubo and other players receive guidance and technical advice from assistant coach Carla MacLeod, a member of Canada’s gold medal winning teams at the Torino and Vancouver Olympics who is credited with raising the team’s level of play.
She came to Japan after the country’s ice hockey federation asked its Canadian counterpart for technical assistance.
“The federation wanted to bring in a female presence and coach and Hockey Canada put my name forward, and I came here for the first time in February 2012,” MacLeod said.
“And now here we are, preparing for Sochi, so it’s been quite a ride.”
Japan will play in Group B in Sochi, which also features hosts Russia, Sweden and Germany, teams that are significantly bigger in size than the Japanese players.
Despite the physical challenge, MacLeod remains undaunted.
At a five-nation tournament held in November Japan took advantage of its speed to upset Switzerland.
“I don’t think there is a disadvantage at all in our squad. Are those teams physically bigger? Sure they are, absolutely,” she said.
“But we have so many strengths that can combat that and make up for the difference. Our speed is a huge component.” ($1 = 103.0100 Japanese yen)
Editing by Elaine Lies/Peter Rutherford