Kodaira hoping to get boost from ‘apple power’ in bid to defend Olympic title

Courtesy of Hotaka Nishizawa
Speed skater Nao Kodaira poses with apple farmer Hotaka Nishizawa at his orchard.

Nagano, which was hit hard by a typhoon in autumn 2019, means a lot to speed skating star Nao Kodaira, who hails from the prefecture.

Kodaira, 35, developed relationships with apple farmers in the region after participating in disaster relief efforts as a volunteer. With support from local farmers and residents, the 2018 Pyeongchang gold medalist is aiming for back-to-back victories in the women’s 500 meters at the Beijing Winter Olympics on Sunday.

In March 2020, five months after Typhoon No. 19 had brought heavy rains to Nagano, Kodaira was in the prefectural capital helping to remove debris from parts of the city. The Chikuma River had breached its banks, flooding homes in areas that line the river and leaving nearby apple orchards covered in mud during the peak harvest period.

Kodaira trained along the river and the scenes of devastation left a deep impact on her. She visited the city after the 2019-2020 speed-skating season, helping out in fields to shovel mud tainted with oil from farming machinery. In June, she participated in clean-up efforts at homes still impacted by the disaster, cleaning floors in her spare time between workouts.

A 60-year-old man who participated in the activities with Kodaira said, “People around her advised her not to do anything that would affect her skating, but [Kodaira] kept working steadily until evening.” He also said she never refused requests for autographs and photos during breaks.

“I was born and raised in Nagano [Prefecture] and the community has supported me,” Kodaira said. “As I have received so much support, I wanted to be the one supporting them this time,” she added about about the volunteer activities.

When the 2020-2021 season started, Kodaira wore a red-and-white racing suit with apple designs as a sign of support for people affected by the typhoon. She also posted photos online of apples she had received from a farmer in a flood-hit area with a message saying, “I will do my best with apple power.”

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Hideo Tanaka smiles as he holds up a written message from Nao Kodaira.

Nagano apple farmer Hideo Tanaka said he sent Kodaira a message through an acquaintance to convey how moved he was by her decision to wear the apple-themed racing suit. When Kodaira visited the orchard of 40-year-old farmer Hotaka Nishizawa to try apple picking, Nishizawa took Kodaira to Tanaka’s home.

Tanaka was not home at the time, but Kodaira left him a message on a postcard saying: “Take care of yourself and continue growing apples. Together with you all, I will do my best.”

Courtesy of Hideo Tanaka
A message from Kodaira to apple farmer Hideo Tanaka

Since then, Tanaka has sent Kodaira apples ahead of events and other occasions. The postcard is now one of Tanaka’s family treasures.

“As a sign of my gratitude, I will give Kodaira as much support as possible while she is competing in Beijing,” Tanaka said.