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22:49 23 February 2017

Feature: Asian Games: Dutch coach setting target high for Japanese skaters

By Morichika Nakamoto
OBIHIRO, Japan, Feb. 23, Kyodo

Japan ended the four days of speed skating events at the Asian Winter Games with 23 medals, but Dutch coach Johan de Wit isn't dwelling on anything until his skaters meet the standard he sets -- to go toe to toe with the world's best.

"I'm happy with the results, (but) I think we can do better," said Japan's medium-to-long-distance coach after all the events for the sport concluded at the meet on Thursday.

"We didn't win every distance so there are still skaters faster than we are and our goal is to become the best, so we have to keep working."

A former skater himself, de Wit coached in his homeland for eight years with the likes of four-time 10,000 Olympic medalist Bob de Jong thriving under his tutelage.

Japan returned from the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics without medaling in what was once one of its strongest winter sports.

But a surge this season has seen Nao Kodaira sweep the 500 meters in six World Cup events so far, Miho Takagi secure her first wins in the 1,000 and 1,500 and Japan's men back securing various podium finishes.

Behind that is the presence of the 37-year-old de Wit, and his fellow Dutchman and short-distance coach Robin Derks, 29.

De Wit had already coached Japanese skaters in Nana Takagi -- the elder sister of Miho who won three gold here in Obihiro -- and Shane Williamson before the Japan Skating Federation came calling in 2015.

He has been enjoying his work so far.

"Japanese skaters are willing to work very hard, they never get tired and we can do our team menu very well. I think that's a big advantage," he said Wednesday of his skaters.

"For example, Dutch skaters have more freedom in what they do, so it's difficult for a coach or staff to evaluate the schedule and draw up the menu because you don't exactly know what they did."

"(Now) we exactly know what our skaters did. We can evaluate our training menu very well so most of them know when they miss something, whether its power or technique, and we work on that."

And de Wit, who places emphasis on intensity and quality at training while using measured data to full effect, was quick to point out what Japanese skaters currently lack and what will make significant differences once attained.

"What we see is that the best skaters in the world have more power in every stroke they give, so that's something we're really trying on, to win some (more) percentages and power they put on the ice."

"It's possible we (Japanese skaters) have the power but the technique is not good, or we don't have the power and they have good technique. Every skater is different, but the thing we see is that they miss a little bit of specific power in every stroke they give on the ice."

He sees positive signs in recent strong outings from the women but also from the men -- although he believes it's a tougher road for them given the even bigger physical gap with Westerners.

"The world's best skaters are still faster. We managed to get that gap smaller only with Miho Takagi in our team and Nao Kodaira, who is now nearly the best (in the world)."

"This year we won three or four medals in the World Cup, which is also amazing as the men's is more difficult. They are developing incredibly fast. (Takuro) Oda won the 1,000 in an amazing time (at these Asian Winter Games), two years ago he wasn't even skating in the World Cup."

With the 2018 Olympic Games just 12 months away, de Wit is certain Japan can take its first step toward returning to where it should be.

"We have the strongest (women's) team in the world and on average everyone's very good, maybe only the Dutch are stronger. We have a fantastic team and young skaters," he said.

"Our youngest skater is 19 (year-old) Ayano Sato who is developing very fast, and our team pursuit is very young both for men and women so we have many years to go. If we develop like the last few years I think we can manage to compete at every distance at world level."

"With Miho, she's upcoming but she's not the best yet. I think she can win two or three medals. She can win the gold medal in the team pursuit. Her average level is higher than her peak level last year and that's amazing."

He believes his skaters can draw aspiration within the national team in the shape of Kodaira, who spent two seasons in the Netherlands before she moved her base back to Japan ahead of this season.

"She wasn't in my team but trained very well in the Netherlands. What I see now is that she's much more focused, she has a very clear goal in winning the gold medal in Pyeongchang," de Wit said on Kodaira's formidable form this term.

"She's working very hard and I think her body weight is down by 5 kilograms (before she went to the Netherlands). That's a very big example for not just for all Japanese skaters but for all the athletes, that when you have a clear goal and want to win something, it's possible."

==Kyodo

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