November 30, 2011

Sports Illustrated will announce its choice for Sportsman of the Year on Dec. 5. Here's one of the nominations for that honor by an SI writer.

Sports often become trivial when tragedy strikes. The passion we exude over it feels irrelevant when contrasted with the harsher aspects of reality.

But sports can also provide a necessary distraction. The Mets and Yankees rallied tragedy-stricken New Yorkers following the attacks of 9/11. The Saints embodied the city of New Orleans' resiliency by marching to the Super Bowl in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

In Japan this past summer, in wake of the biggest earthquake in the nation's history -- a ground-splitting 9.0 on the Richter scale -- the Japanese women's World Cup team inspired a nation devastated by the March 11 disaster. That's why I'm nominating this team as SI's Sportswomen of the Year.

Nothing could bring back the 25,000 dead or missing from the enveloping tidal waves that swept six miles inland, and little could recede the growing tension caused by the country's potential nuclear fallout. But after four months spent reeling from the destruction, a magical run by Japan's women's World Cup team shed light on the country for a reason other than tragedy.

Entering the World Cup, Japan was a favorite only in the sentimental sense. It had won just three games in five tournaments leading up and had yet to claim the Asian title -- let alone a World Cup. But Nadeshiko (the team's nickname, meaning "beautiful flower") defeated New Zealand and Mexico in group play, advancing to the knockout stage and a first-round battle with host nation Germany.

That's when soccer shifted from Japan's peripherals to its forefront. After 108 deadlocked minutes against Germany, substitute Karina Maruyama found the back of the net in extra time to pull off a stunning 1-0 victory over the two-time defending champions. In an instance of poetic justice, the winning goal was scored by Maruyama, who served as an operator at the Fukushima nuclear plant crippled by the earthquake. Her goal kept Japan's title dreams alive and provided some measure of hope and happiness for her native land.

The upset alone could have served as the fairytale ending to the women from a wounded nation. But the story did not end there. A 3-1 win over perennial powerhouse Sweden clinched Japan its first World Cup final in history.

But the team they'd face in the final was mounting a dazzling tournament run of its own. The United States was hitting its stride and had never lost to Japan in 25 previous meetings, including a pair of 2-0 victories a month before the tournament.

The final started around 4 a.m. local time in Japan, yet fans across the country packed into living rooms and bars to watch. After four long months its citizens were desperate for a distraction, something else to discuss, if only for a moment.

Twice the United States took a one-goal lead -- both in regulation and extra time -- but Japan's mantra all along had been, "Never give up." Captain Homare Sawa hoped her team's determination and grit would encourage "the people hit by the tsunami that they can survive if they also never give up."

U.S. star Abby Wambach headed in her country's second goal in the 104th minute, but Sawa deflected a corner kick just minutes later to square the game again and send it to penalty kicks. Thanks to two spectacular saves by goalie Ayumi Kaihori, Japan held a 2-1 advantage as defender Saki Kumagi placed the ball on the ground 12 yards out for her penalty kick. She rolled her shoulders and stared up into the lights, pausing to take in the moment. Kumagi then took six steps forward and calmly crisped the ball into the top left corner of the net past U.S. goalie Hope Solo. Kumagi's teammates raced onto the field in tear-jerking happiness to celebrate the improbable victory while citizens of Japan poured into the same streets where, only months earlier, refuge was sought from crumbling buildings and rising floodwater. So momentous was the victory that it drew in a mind-boggling 7,196 tweets per second on Twitter, a record on the social media service.

Yes, it was only sports but "Nadeshiko," even for a brief moment, helped lift its nation from grief. No one is more deserving of this award in 2011.

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