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Ice hockey: Japan's minnow women hit the big time

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

The star striker works in a pizza delivery office and has not taken a holiday in five years. Like her teammates, she scrimps and saves to fund her own training, using every spare moment to practise.

But the hard work of Japan's women's ice hockey team paid off after they won through to the 2014 Winter Olympics against the odds, inspired in large part by the success of the country's World Cup winning female soccer stars.

Until about a week ago, few Japanese people knew the nation of 128 million even had a women's hockey team but it is now set to compete against giants like Canada, Russia and the United States in Russia's Sochi next year.

They won through in the final qualifying tournament in Slovakia this month and will be the first Japanese women's hockey team to take part in a Winter Olympics.

"My players were mentally strong even when they were in a tough situation," said Japan coach Yuji Iizuka of a squad that overcame a three-goal deficit to beat Norway 4-3 in the qualifying tournament.

For the last eight years, players have been expected to chip in to cover the cost of travelling to overseas competitions and even to help kit the team out, in a country where firing a black rubber puck into a small net is of limited interest.

According to the Japan Ice Hockey Federation (JIHF), each player put in 50,000 yen ($540) for a game overseas and 10,000 yen to take part in a training camp in Japan.

Ace striker Tomoko Sakagami, who scored the decider against Norway, has funded her berth in the national team working part time in a pizza delivery shop, while using every free moment to brush up her sporting skills.

She has not taken a holiday in five years. Most of her teammates also work part-time jobs.

"I didn't become a full-time employee because I need to be able to practise whenever I want to," said the 29-year-old.

"It was tough to shoulder the expenses personally, but I'm glad that I kept working."

Hanae Kubo, the 30-year-old centre, came out of retirement in January last year after being inspired by the success of the national women's football team and their World Cup win in 2011.

Kubo works in an office at an ice rink in Tokyo so she can practise in her free time.

"Dreams come true if you keep chasing. I re-started training from the very first step," she said.

Japan's place in Sochi means life for the team has just got easier.

The Federation is readying up to 300 million yen to help boost the team, while official sponsor Takasu Clinic has offered 100 million yen.

"We are planning to stage a training camp every month," said JIHF president Tsuneji Okuzumi. "I want to send the team for overseas games. We will aim to win the gold medal."

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/130221/ice-hockey-japans-minnow-women-hit-the-big-time