Miho Takagi (JPN), Nana Takagi (JPN) and Ayano Sato (JPN) competing at the 2021 ISU World Cup Speed Skating in Salt Lake City, USA © International Skating Union (ISU)
With three gold medals, two silver and a bronze, Japan came second in the medal table at the 2018 PyeongChang Olympic Games. Fast forward to Beijing 2022, the prospect looks even brighter. All Japanese silverware in PyeongChang was won in women’s events, but the men have caught up in recent years, especially in the shortest distance.
Building on a team
Although Japan had not won a single Speed Skating medal at the 2014 Olympic Games in Sochi, the 2018 success did not come out of the blue. In the years running up to PyeongChang, coach Johan de Wit (NED) carefully built a team pursuit squad around the sisters Miho and Nana Takagi, accompanied by Ayano Sato and Ayaka Kikuchi.
After having won the 2016 and 2017 Team Pursuit World Cup, they marked their dominance in the discipline with Olympic gold and a third consecutive World Cup trophy in 2018.
Nana Takagi (JPN) competing at the 2021 ISU World Cup Speed Skating in Calgary, Canada © International Skating Union (ISU)
The team’s success went hand in hand with individual progress. “We train together with the skaters in the Team Pursuit squad. If we focus on the individual distances, we’ll get stronger and therefore the Team Pursuit squad will also become stronger,” Nana Takagi said after taking 1500m silver at the fourth leg of this season’s World Cup in Calgary (December 10-12, 2021).
Back in 2018 Nana Takagi had added to the Japanese Olympic medal haul with gold in the mass start, while her sister Miho took a bronze in the 1000m and a silver in the 1500m.
The world’s greatest
Although Nana won an individual Olympic gold alongside the Team Pursuit title, Miho has won more silverware at World Cups and ISU Championships.
The youngest of the two sisters from Obihiro – Nana is 29 and Miho 27 – won the Allround World title in 2018, the Sprint World title in 2020 and 11 individual World Cup races.
"I think she's the greatest skater at this very moment, but she's a bit more modest herself" said coach De Wit after the World Sprint title in 2020.
Miho rather speaks with her legs. This season she’s gearing up well for the Olympic Games in Beijing. Takagi won all three 1500m races she skated in the World Cup, and took a gold and two silver in the 1000m, while also participating in a 5000m and a 3000m B division race.
Ayano Sato (JPN), Miho Takagi (JPN) andAntoinette de Jong (NED) at the medal ceremony during the 2021 ISU World Cup Speed Skating in Salt Lake City, USA © International Skating Union (ISU)
Ayano Sato and Nana Takagi underlined the depth of the Japanese women’s team, winning their first World Cup medals in a classical distance this season. Sato seized two bronze and a silver in the 1500m, and Nana Takagi also took a 1500m silver.
Team pursuit troubles
Despite the individual successes, the team pursuit puzzle has not come together this season yet. Heading towards Beijing 2022, the Team Pursuit ladies are not the invincible train they were four years ago in PyeongChang anymore.
After being absent in last season’s Heerenveen bubble, the squad had an unlucky start to the season when Nana Tagagi was absent due to a positive Covid-test at the first World Cup in Poland. Miho Takagi, Misaki Oshigiri and Sato finished second behind Canada.
Miho Takagi (JPN), Misaki Oshigiri (JPN) and Ayano Sato (JPN) winning the silver medal at the 2021 ISU World Cup Speed Skating in Tomaszow Mazowiecki, Poland © International Skating Union (ISU)
In the second Team Pursuit of the World Cup season, the Takagi sisters and Sato set the fastest split times only to crash in the final lap and leave the victory to Canada. A week later in Calgary, the same lineup had to bow their heads for Canada again.
Apart from coach Johan de Wit’s allround team, Nao Kodaira reigned the sprint in 2018, winning 500m gold and 1000m silver. The Angry Cat, as she was affectionately nicknamed for her posture while training in the Netherlands in 2014 and 2015, is still one of the world’s fastest women on ice, but she’s not as dominant as she was, leading up to the 2018 Olympics anymore.
Nao Kodaira (JPN) competing at the 2021 ISU World Cup Speed Skating in Calgary, Canada © International Skating Union (ISU)
The women’s 500m is one of the most competitive distances in Speed Skating at the moment. Having won one gold and four silver medals, Kodaira is ranked third in the 500m World Cup, behind Erin Jackson (USA), Angelina Golikova (RUS). In the 1000m, Kodaira is ranked second behind Brittany Bowe (USA).
The women’s success has inspired the Japanese men. Building upon the legacy of 1998 Olympic Champion and five-time World Champion Hiroyasu Shimizu, known as the emperor of sprint two decades ago, Tatsuya Shinhama won the 2020 World Sprint title.
Tatsuya Shinhama (JPN) winning the Men's Sprint medal during the 2020 Combined ISU World Sprint & World Allround Speed Skating Championships in Hamar, Norway © International Skating Union (ISU)
Along with 25-year-old Shinhama, a new generation of Japanese sprinters is conquering the world. Wataru Morishige (21), Shinhama, Yamato Matsui (24) and Yuma Murakami (29) all won medals in this year’s 500m World Cup competition, and Japan has three men behind top-ranked Laurent Dubreuil (CAN) in the current top-five of the 500m World Cup ranking. Matsui celebrated his career first World Cup victory at the Salt Lake City World Cup on December 3, 2021, while Morishige won his career first World Cup medal in Poland on November 14, 2021.
Wataru Morishige (JPN) ompeting at the 2021 ISU World Cup Speed Skating in Stavanger Hamar, Norway © International Skating Union (ISU)
The new generation honors former Emperor Shimizu. “He’s still an inspiration for us Japanese sprinters nowadays,” Matsui said. Similar to the women’s team, the sum is greater than the parts in the Japanese men’s squad. “After Shimizu quit, Japanese sprinting was absent for a while, but we got the national team back together and we make each other stronger,” Matsui explains.
Morishige, Shinhama and Matsui came first, second and third in the Japanese Olympic trials in Nagano on December 29, 2021 and all three were able to skate the 500m under 34 seconds. A first male Japanese medal at the Olympics since Shimizu in 1998, seems to be on the Beijing horizon.