By SHAWN STAR
Though Canada’s women’s hockey team didn’t win the gold medal at the Nagano Olympics, one player still came away feeling like a champion.
Without being in Japan for very long, Vicky Sunohara could tell it would be an unforgettable experience, but she never anticipated how overwhelming it would all be.
“We got off the plane to go to the Olympic village,” the two-time Olympic gold medalist said, “and there were all kinds of reporters and they all gathered around me and I thought ‘What’s going on?’”
Though some of the media were there to interview her for a one-hour documentary, a lot of the attention was coming because of her heritage. Sunohara is half Japanese, and she had always though she had uncle living in Japan. But she discovered soon after arriving she had a lot more than one relative living there – and to them, she was a big deal.
“Each day I would have about 75 to 100 media requests every day for interviews,” she said. “And I had no idea I had relatives (in Japan).”
Sunohara didn’t know how important it was for many Japanese people that she was playing in Japan until she stepped onto the ice for the first time.
“The first game, I was skating out onto the ice and we were looking up into the stands and my teammates were laughing,” she said. “I had a hockey card out and these people had blown it up life-size and it said ‘Welcome home.’”
It turned out she had a very large extended family in Japan. And after the team lost in the gold medal game to the United States, Sunohara went to visit her family and the experience took away some of the sting from the gold medal loss.
“At the end of the Olympics they brought me back to the village where my grandparents were brought up,” she said. “They had this big sit down dinner and there were nameplates on the tables. I was amazed.”
Sunohara gained memories she never thought possible that night. Without knowing this part of her family even existed, she suddenly saw herself immersed in what would become the reunion of a lifetime.
“Some of the people had pictures of my mom and dad’s wedding,” she said. “I saw all these pictures of my grandparents that I had never seen before.”
At one point in the evening she was asked to speak. Since no one spoke English, a translator recited everything in Japanese to the family members.
“Every time I’d say something, he would say what I was saying and they were all laughing,” she said. “And I didn’t really say anything funny.”
Though there was a verbal language barrier, the emotional connections were enough for them to understand everyone enjoyed the gathering. And for Sunohara, it was the trip of a lifetime.