“The entire process of life is a fight,” said Kinue Hitomi (19071931), who was the first Japanese woman to win an Olympic medal when she won silver in the 800-meter track event at the 1928 Summer Games in Amsterdam.

Hitomi had to fight against the general perception at the time that it was not quite normal for a woman to be a sprinter.

While the environment for female athletes has since changed dramatically, it is still true that women need indomitable spirit and the courage to overcome failure if they want to open up new frontiers in the world of sports.

“I don’t like to walk in a prepared environment,” speed skater Nao Kodaira, 31, said Dec. 10 after setting a world record in the women’s 1,000 meters. She became the first Japanese woman to set a world record in an individual speed skating qualifier for the Olympics.

“I make choices on my own and accept both failures and successes,” she said in a TV interview.

Kodaira was born in Chino, Nagano Prefecture, where skating is very popular. She wore skates for the first time when just 3 years old.

Upon graduating from a local high school, she entered Shinshu University in the prefecture.

After competing in two Winter Olympics without winning a medal in an individual event, Kodaira decamped to the Netherlands, a major ice-skating power, in 2014 to hone her skills.

It's unusual for a female Japanese speed skater to make such a career move. Rather than going abroad to train, most join a corporate club after finishing school.

Skating for a Dutch professional club for two seasons, Kodaira tried to learn all there was to learn about the sport and also, dictionary never far away, picked up the language.

She acquired the skill of bending her back to lower her waist in a way that allows her to keep the entirety of the blades in contact with the ice.

Her training buddies gave her the nickname of “Boze Kat” (the Dutch words for “angry cat”) because of the powerful but flexible skating style she has developed through strenuous efforts.

Asked about her goal for the upcoming Olympic season, she quoted the famous words of Mahatma Gandhi: “Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.”

Her fervent aspiration for growth and strong sensibility seem to be the driving force of her continuous progress, even though she is now in her 30s.

The “angry cat” has displayed consistently remarkable performances in recent races. But she will face many formidable rivals in the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics early next year, including South Korea’s Lee Sang-hwa, 28, a two-time Olympic champion in the 500 meters, known as the “speed-skating empress.”

Expect fierce, intriguing battles on the ice.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Dec. 17

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Vox Populi, Vox Dei is a popular daily column that takes up a wide range of topics, including culture, arts and social trends and developments. Written by veteran Asahi Shimbun writers, the column provides useful perspectives on and insights into contemporary Japan and its culture.