Nao Kodaira finished third in the women’s 500 meters at the final World Cup meet of the season on Sunday to capture the overall title for that distance, the first for a Japanese speed skater in 14 years.
Kodaira clocked 38.49 seconds to place third behind Americans Heather Richardson and Brittany Bowe, giving her enough points to boost her past leader Lee Sang Hwa of South Korea.
Kodaira had finished fourth on Saturday to pull within 60 points of Lee, the two-time Olympic champion who did not take part in the Erfurt meet. Sunday’s result gave her 106 points to claim the title with 926.
The 28-year-old Kodaira became the fourth Japanese to win the World Cup crown in the 500 and the first since former Olympic men’s champion Hiroyuki Shimizu, who did it for the third and last time in the 2000-01 season.
On Sunday, Kodaira put her full effort into the season-ending race, and pumped her fists several times after finishing. It was the eighth time in 12 races this season that she made the podium.
“I wanted something to show for my 12 races,” said Kodaira, who needed just a top-five finish to clinch the distance title.
In preparation for the post-Olympic season, Kodaira moved her training base to the Netherlands, allowing her work out with one of the strongest skating teams in the world.
The hard work paid off in the ninth meet of the season, when she won her first World Cup race. Her podium finishes well out-numbered the two she achieved the previous season.
Kodaira realizes that there is still a gap with the top skaters. Richardson and other strong Americans skipped the early meets of the season, and Lee was not present for the final one.
However, the season holds deep meaning as she looks ahead to even fiercer competition in the years ahead.
“My goal is to make it to the top,” she said. “I will work to make sure I raise my level.”