Saori Kimura will spearhead Japan's World Championship campaign
The two FIVB World Championships are the highlights of the year. Each week in the run up to the title showdowns for the men in Poland (August 30 to September 21) and for the women in Italy (September 23 to October 12), we will introduce an international volleyball star. In part 14 of the series, we tell the story of the queen of Japanese volleyball, Saori Kimura.
Lausanne, Switzerland, August 5, 2014 - Saori Kimura has a mission: to make the many Japanese volleyball fans happy by winning a major event. Japan won the World Championships three times between 1962 and 1974, and won an Olympic gold in Montreal in 1976. That is now 38 years ago, however, and the FIVB World Championships next month in Italy represent a chance to end years of suffering.
Japan's hopes are mainly founded on Saori Kimura, who is a world-class wing-spiker and the team's natural leader. Her experiences at the two FIVB World Championships in 2006 and 2010, which both took place in Japan, have also helped to strengthen her game. Four years ago, Kimura was the second-highest scorer of the women's tournament with 240 points and led the hosts to the bronze medal - as she did two years later at the Olympic Games in London, where she was the third-highest point scorer with 142 points.
At the Grand Champions Cup last year – the last major event in women's volleyball before the FIVB World Grand Prix taking place at the moment – the Japanese women were in with a chance of winning the title until the final match. “Japan haven’t had such a chance to win a big tournament for 20 or 30 years, so I thought that was good. I want to get rid of the stereotypes of what Japanese volleyball is all about,” said coach Masayoshi Manabe.
The key to his plan is national hero Kimura. Even Olympic Games winners Brazil, the clear favourites, have started to fear the Kimura team. “They have grown up more than other teams in the last four years. Of course, they need to improve their block, but before 2009 Japan were always sixth or seventh in the world; now they are on the podium every time. They improved and I think they are close to us,” said Brazil coach Ze Roberto.
However, that's nowhere near enough for Saori Kimura: “We adopted a new strategy; we can see the merits of that but we can also see some issues we have to deal with. These points are now very clear, so we have to adapt.” The goal of finally seeing Japan at the top again is the main priority of the woman who will celebrate her 28th birthday on August 19. The recent announcement of her decision to return to her old team Toray Arrows in the Japanese V League is also evidence of her intentions.
Kimura played there between 2005 and 2012 and won all the major titles in Japan during that period. After her spectacular Olympic appearance in London, Kimura moved to top Turkish team Vakifbank Istanbul, where she won the national title and the European Champions League. In the course of the two busy years she has spent in Turkey, the young woman, who enjoys shopping and reading fashion magazines when she's not on the volleyball court, even published a book. But now she is back in her home country and able to focus on the Japanese national team and Project Gold – after all, it's only two years until Kimura's fourth Olympic Games in Rio 2016. And head coach Manabe wants to have his best player back in Japan.
The woman born in Yashio had no idea that she would one day command such respect. As a small child, she always went with her sporty mum to her volleyball training sessions. “I always followed her and then I started my career”, recounted Saori Kimura. Although her main position is as a spiker, she is a great all-rounder. She is also strong at receiving, in defence when blocking and serving.
Kimura has remained modest despite her fame and success: “An individual player can never win in volleyball, you always need the whole team. You need to work hard together as a team, which is why I love volleyball.” Her happiest days as an athlete were always those in which “I won gold with my team.” It's this feeling that she now wants to share with the entire Japanese nation.