If you look back at the last decade of Japanese women’s volleyball, there is a core of players that won bronze medals at the 2010 FIVB Volleyball Women’s World Championship and 2012 London Olympics. That core earned Japan its first medals in those tournaments in 32 and 28 years, respectively. However, the most important player of that period was Saori Kimura. Without Kimura’s all-around play on the court, Japan would never have reached such heights.
Kimura started playing volleyball in elementary school and was known as a great defender of her side of the court even by the sixth grade. She joined Tokyo girls' high school powerhouse Seitoku High School (now Shimo-Kitazawa Seitoku). In 2003, Seitoku won the Spring Volleyball tournament (Haruko), and in the summer, Kimura was invited to train with the senior women’s national team.
At the 2003 Asian Women’s Volleyball Championship, Kimura made her first appearance aged just 17. With Japan hosting the 2003 FIVB Volleyball World Cup, Kimura got to play in front of some of her high school classmates who were in the stands in Tokyo. A year later she was on the Japanese Olympic team in Athens.
After graduating from high school, she joined the Toray Arrows and became the club's leading player in the V.League, while at the same starting to move up into the starting lineup for the national team.
By 2008, Kimura had helped the Arrows win their first title, but the Japanese women’s team just could not get past the powers of Russia, Brazil, USA and Italy.
At the 2010 FIVB Volleyball World Grand Prix, however, the Japanese team, with Kimura driving it, started to make inroads against the big international powers, defeating Italy (3-1) and Poland (3-1) in pool play and making the Final Round. Japan defeated Brazil (3-2) for the first time in nine years and defeated Italy again 3-2, but finished fifth out of the six teams qualified.
With the 2010 FIVB Women’s World Championship being held in Japan, Saori was ready to show the world that Japan were back. Saori was the one player that the Japanese press was focusing on as she had been named to the Best 6 of the V.League for three consecutive years and was named the MVP of the 2009-2010 season.
Sadly for Japan, Brazil came from behind in an epic semifinal to win 3-2. Kimura had 25 points on 24 kills, a block and 19 digs in the match.
After the match, Kimura sat with her back against the advertising boards. She was thinking of the team’s pre-tournament goal of winning a medal.
In the third-place match, the following day, Japan faced the United States. Saori took her outside hitter position and showed why she was the ace.
However, spiking at the net was where she was unstoppable. Kimura had 63 swings, and on 26 of them, the ball hit the floor. No other player on the Japan team reached double figures in kills. She carried the team to their first World Championship medal in 32 years.
Two years later at the London Olympics, Japan faced their Asian rivals China in the quarterfinals.
Early in the match, Kimura realised that she could not find her line shot and decided she would only go crosscourt. And Kimura went for 32 kills in the five-set match.
Japan had beaten China for the first time in 11 years.
Brazil would dominate Japan in the semifinal, but Japan would have another chance for a bronze medal against another Asian rival in South Korea.
In the bronze medal match, Kimura would not be her spiking self, but her serve-receive passing was good with 25 excellents in 33 attempts, and nine digs, which allowed her teammates to attack South Korea and take the 3-0 win for the bronze medal.
Japan had just ended a 28-year medal drought at the Olympics with Kimura a key figure.
With Japan qualifying for the 2016 Rio Olympics, it was not known if it was going to be Kimura’s last outing with the national team as she had already played at the 2004, 2008 and 2012 events. Many of the younger players who had cycled into the national team after London had said that they had wanted to play with Saori.
Pool play in Rio was difficult for Japan with losses to South Korea, Russia, and Brazil. Japan needed to defeat Argentina on the final day of pool play to advance to the quarterfinals against the USA who were first in Pool B after pool play.
Sadly, it was Kimura’s last match after playing with the national team for 12 years. For many of Kimura’s fans, however, it was a great way to say goodbye - with a final flourish - after taking the Japanese women’s national team to levels that they had not seen in decades.
Saori continued for one more club season in 2016-2017, but her Toray Arrows could not advance to the second round of the playoffs.
She announced her retirement on March 22, 2017 and was celebrated at the V.League All-Star Game three days later.
In Japanese volleyball, Saori Kimura’s name will stand forever as that of one of the best players in the country’s history.
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