By JORDAN IKEDA
Rafu Sports Editor
You could certainly call them the Dream Team.
After all, these were the finest kendo athletes the United States had to offer, whittled down from literally thousands to the elite number of 18 over a long and arduous process. All in an effort to represent the United States at the 14th World Kendo Championships, the Olympics of kendo, held this year in Sao Paulo, Brazil at the end of August.
Ten men. Eight women. The best of the best.
A mix of new blood, including the talent of over a half dozen rookies, to go along with the gritty, determined veterans each of whose experience spanned the better part of two decades.
Dream Team indeed.
But there was quite a bit of “Redeem Team” in them as well.
Rewind the clock three years and travel across the world to Taiwan at the 13th World Kendo Championships. There, the 2006 men’s U.S. team, the only team ever to defeat Japan during the 36-year history of the Worlds, having just accomplished the impossible, ultimately fell short of their golden aspirations losing to Korea in the finals. The 06 U.S. women’s team? An embarrassing elimination from competition in the early going.
“We had a bittersweet memory of Taiwan,” 2003, 06, and 09 men’s team captain Christopher Yang told the Rafu Shimpo. “We decided as a team to give it one more try and challenge with the hopes of becoming the world champions. And for about two years the team trained together, pretty much everyday.”
“We weren’t going to go home with anything less than gold,” said Mitsuyo Sakae of Little Tokyo Dojo. “That was the attitude we had coming in.”
That was the mission. That was the mindset.
In Brazil, despite eating a lot of cheese, being forced to steer clear of fruits, vegetables and tap water, and having to make their way around what Sakae termed “A metropolitan… like city-city, but like ghetto at the same time,” that intense focus never wavered.
In fact, everything started out as well as it possibly could. The men earned top billing in their pool to avoid having to play Korea or Japan en route to the finals. They defeated their eternal rival Canada, a 50-50 proposition according to Yang. They then ousted Germany, advanced past Great Britain, won against an exceptional Hungary squad, eliminated the host country in the semis, before facing Japan in the finals.
On the women’s front, they made a strong showing as well. They emerged from their pool to defeat Chinese Taipei. They then took out France in the quarterfinals before meeting Japan in the semis.
“Everyone thinks that Japan is number one,” said women’s U.S. team member Nishiki Sano who is known as the queen of kiya for her tremendous vocal power. “They are what kendo is supposed to be—the tradition. People actually wanted Japan to win. It’s weird. It’s a competition and you’d think people would want their countries to win, but a lot of people were cheering for Japan.”
Perhaps it was the crowds, perhaps it was bad luck, maybe it was a slightly undercooked meal, but most likely, it was simply not their time.
In the end, both teams fell to Japan, the women’s team ending up with a third place finish while the men had to once again settle for second.
“Unfortunately, the last match against Japan, we didn’t show very well,” said Brandon Harada also of Little Tokyo Dojo. “We lost the first three matches and by the time our captain got to play in the fourth, it was already over.”
“I think Brandon is being a little hard on himself and on us,” Yang explained. “I think in the finals, against a professional Japan team that has only lost once in the past 30 something years of competition, you could play them a hundred times, and only win once. We were willing to bet our lives on that one.”
There is something to be said about courage, determination and dedication. Both the men’s and women’s team displayed all three of those attributes and America should be proud of their accomplishments. Remember, Japan and Korea both maintain kendo as a profession, meaning all of their players are paid for their services—a la Lamar Odom and Rafael Furcal. Well, more like Manny Ramirez and Kobe Bryant. U.S. kendo is a hobby done after one returns home from his or her job, during his or her free time.
“To lose to Japan, it was heart wrenching. But if you step back and really think about it,” said Sakae, “we did the best that we could at that time. Coming from nothing and to place third, I think is amazing.”
“This time around,” continued Yang, “we were in the best condition possible. We had the best teamwork possible. That’s how shiai goes. You just never know. And we just couldn’t pull it together at the end.”
But that’s what makes sports a competition, and the best part about it, is that there’s always another game to be played. Three years from now, when the Worlds will be held in Italy, Team USA will get another opportunity. For some, including Yang and Harata, this year marks the end of their U.S. Team participation, but for others, it is just the beginning.
“There’s a good group of young kids willing to put in the effort and really, really want to try to get that dream of becoming world champions, which is something the U.S. has never done before,” said Yang. “I think as long as people stay at it, the future of U.S. kendo is bright.”
Indeed. The young talent on hand at this year’s Worlds was able to get invaluable experience not only from participating in them, but from learning to be a team through the osmosis of being around the veteran leadership of the senior members including Yang, Harata and Sakae.
“I think in general it was a great experience to compete with the best in the world,” said Simon Yoo one such player who is already eyeing Italy. “The rest of the world is practicing just as hard, the one thing we can say is that we have to put that much more effort into our training.”
“We did what we could,” said Jason Brown another youngster eyeing Italy. “There’s no regrets.”
And while the whole of American society perhaps knew nothing of this particular Team USA’s exploits, for those who witnessed the Worlds in Brazil firsthand, they will undoubtedly profess that the red, white and blue was represented in excellence.
“You’re not only representing yourself, but you realize that you’re representing your federation, the Southern California Kendo Federation, and your country,” said Yang. “It’s something that you actually take great pride in, but also, you feel a great deal of responsibility. And I think that’s what really kind of motivated us to try hard, is, you know, just remembering all the people who supported us. All the people that encouraged us…So many people who do kendo in America donated a ton of money, a lot of their time, a lot of their efforts to support us. When you think about all of this, it just gives you so much motivation.”
Perhaps part of Team USA’s training should be learning how to say “Gold” in Italian.