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Overcoming earthquake and tsunami, Tokiwagi's back at USA CUP

07/19/2012, 2:21pm CDT
By Madeline Greene

Soccer was the last thing on Haruka Nihei’s mind on March 11, 2011. She and her brother were at home as first an earthquake shook her house and then a horrific tsunami washed away everything she owned.

Nihei was a player for the Tokiwagi Gauken High School soccer team. The school, located in Sendai, Japan, has a storied history in Schwan's USA CUP. Some of Japan’s best national soccer players came through the team and played in USA CUP, including three members of Japan's current World Cup Champions. No surprise then that when they travel to USA CUP, they've dominated the tournament. Their incredible foot skills, speed and teamwork make Tokiwagi’s teams "must see" during the tournament.

The record-breaking 9.0 earthquake shook her home, and Nihei rushed into the street to avoid any possible injuries from her collapsing home.  She was quickly ushered by government officials to a tallest building in her neighborhood, an elementary school building. From there, she watched the tsunami wash away friends, family and belongings, some that would never be seen again.

For the next few weeks, Nihei and her family were moved from place to place, trying to gain some sort of normalcy amidst the tragedy. After staying at a government-owned facility the Nihei family decided to visit other family in countryside not far from Sendai.

After the tsunami all of Nihei’s belongings were gone, leaving her with none of her prized soccer gear. When they arrived at her grandmother’s home, the first thing the family did was visit a local soccer shop. There her family showered her with soccer jerseys, boots and soccer balls.

“I was so happy,” said Nihei. “I don’t think I knew what real happiness was before then.”

Soccer has turned into a way for Nihei and her team to escape the sorrow they feel and leave it all on the field.

“Soccer is home. I can never have a bad day if I’m playing soccer,” said Nihei.

While the two Tokawagi teams at USA CUP are thousands of miles away from home, they still carry some of that emotion with them. They brought along picture books filled with photographs of the devastation and presented them to the families that are hosting them in the Twin Cities.

The Japanese guide, Seigo Masabuchi, shared the book by pointing and explaining the places that Nihei lived and her escape route to safety. These books prove that no matter where these players are in the world, they will continue to carry around the weight of this tragic event.

While interviewing Nehei, there were obvious moments of sadness when discussing the tsunami and the events thereafter. But as soon as soccer is mentioned her whole demeanor changes and she is the lighthearted teenager she once was.  She is full of smiles and optimism and even with the language barrier her laugh is downright contagious.

She continued to explain how her teammates and friends have helped her look on the bright side, even on her darkest of days.

“My teammates and friends are the best part of soccer,” said Nehei. “If something happens to me, I can rely them. And if something happens to them, they rely on me. Soccer is family.”

This teams incredible dedication to the sport after these events is inspiring for all those around them. This week the team will continue to move forward in hopes of not only winning the tournament, but also becoming one step closer to living the normal life they wish to live.

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Tag(s): July 19, 2012