After tsunami, soccer gives hope

  • Article by: CRAIG MALVEAUX , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 19, 2012 - 9:47 PM

Japanese players who lived through 2011 disaster credit the sport with helping them survive and thrive.

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Haruka Nihei is part of the elite-level Tokiwagi Gauken team competing at the Schwan’s Cup this week. After last year’s quake and tsunami that hit Japan and decimated her hometown, she is finding new joy in playing the sport she loves.

Photo: Carlos Gonzalez, Star Tribune

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Haruka Nihei curled up in a corner inside her home, cringing in disbelief at the scene before her eyes.¶ Broken chairs, tables, shelves and other debris cluttered the room. Minutes before, a powerful earthquake hit her hometown, the coastal city of Sendai, Japan.

The frightened 16-year-old burst out the door of her home, seeking safety. Nearby, a fire crew barked orders for everyone to leave the streets. Nihei fled to the highest point in the city.

"There," Nihei said, referencing her location in a picture book that displayed a building in the midst of rubble chunks, clumps of dirt and wasteland. "I was there."

Nihei is part of the elite-level Tokiwagi Gauken contingent at the Schwan's USA Cup international soccer tournament in Blaine. On Wednesday, she remembered clearly that horrific day in March 2011 when the earthquake and tsunami struck her home country.

From atop the building -- a five-story school -- she watched the tsunami wave plow through her home, obliterating it piece by piece. She felt helpless. She felt sad, but thankful to be alive.

"I met my family at the school," Nihei said through a translator. "They knew where I would go."

The tsunami and the mega-thrust earthquake left the city decimated. Most of Sendai was underwater. The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant reactors exploded. Rubble littered the land. Boats and vehicles lodged in buildings. Remains of homes were on fire.

More than a year later, the death toll in Japan is at more than 15,800, with at least another 2,900 missing.

In the outskirts of Sendai, Okada Mari resided in a boarding school out of harm's way. Mari, also in Blaine this week for the soccer tournament, said she lost one of her grandmothers that day. Her grandmother's home, meters away from the coast, collapsed. The water, Mari believes, swept her grandmother away.

"We haven't found her," Mari said through a translator. "It was really difficult for me to say goodbye without her body."

Mari, who plays on Tokiwagi's under-19 team, has an intense and serious style. She said her grandmother would be proud of her granddaughter's international soccer travels.

"My grandmother was always really happy for me whenever I would succeed in something," Mari said. "Even though she isn't here, her spirit is with me, inside me. So, whenever I succeed on the field, I know she is really happy for me."

Nihei copes a bit differently. She smiles broadly while playing, and says nothing excites her more than the opportunity to play the sport she loves against players from all over the world.

"The teams we play have different styles of playing," Nihei said. "I'm really enjoying myself."

Perhaps it's because Nihei's soccer dreams seemed over that spring evening. She lost everything. For three weeks, she and her family were homeless, temporary residents at a safety defense base where a rescue team brought survivors. They wondered where they would call home the next few months. Soccer wasn't an option.

But after relocating to a junior high school, Nihei's family brought her to a soccer shop and purchased a new ball and some jerseys.

"I found out what happiness was at that moment," she said. "I didn't know what happiness was anymore after [the tsunami]."

Mari's home remained intact, although there was no electricity and cracks appeared in several places. Her family cooked meals on a grill, and massive trucks delivered buckets of water to neighborhood residents in need.

Both Tokiwagi teams have been dominant in the tournament, and have a chance to play for championships on Saturday. Nearly 16 months after their lives were shaken, Nihei and Mari have a new appreciation. They both could have easily been victims, but managed to survive.

"My home is OK, and I can play soccer," Mari said. "I live my life fuller, now. I can continue to pursue my dream and collect memories."

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