Japan earthquake still resonates with junior skater | Figure Skating | CBC Sports

Figure SkatingJapan earthquake still resonates with junior skater

Posted: Thursday, December 1, 2011 | 02:02 PM

Back to accessibility links
Marika Steward's love of skating stayed with her even amid the chaos of the natural disasters in Japan in March 2011. Marika Steward's love of skating stayed with her even amid the chaos of the natural disasters in Japan in March 2011.

Beginning of Story Content

Marika Steward is the 14-year-old Junior Ladies Northern Ontario Sectional Champion and is one of 500 skaters descending on Regina this week for the Skate Canada Challenge event, where she's hoping to qualify for the Canadian nationals in January.

Every skater can tell you stories of sacrifice and training challenges. But Marika's story is unique.
Marika Steward is the 14-year-old Junior Ladies Northern Ontario Sectional Champion and is one of 500 skaters descending on Regina this week for the Skate Canada Challenge event, where she's hoping to qualify for the Canadian nationals in January.

Every skater can tell you stories of sacrifice and training challenges. But Marika's story is unique.

March 11, 2011 was just another school day in Sendai, Japan, where Marika lives most of the year, and she was reaching for her laptop to start her work in science class. Suddenly, she could feel the shaking. There had been a small earthquake two days before, and she and her classmates thought this was the same.

They couldn't have been more wrong. Registering 9.0 on the Richter scale, this earthquake, along with the subsequent tsunami, would devastate Sendai.

From under a table with three other students, all Marika could think was, "I hope I can survive."

The shaking and heaving went on for three minutes. Maybe that doesn't sound like much, but try hopping on one foot for three minutes. It'll feel like forever.

"If I think about it, I can still hear the sounds," Marika says. "My teacher's laptop falling to the floor, beakers falling down and glass smashing. The earthquake sounds like a subway station when a train is coming."

The day time stood still

Marika's father, James, is the headmaster at the Tohoku International School where Marika, her 12-year-old sister Taia and their mother Alana, who's a Canadian of Japanese descent, spend their days. Three-year-old brother Kiyo goes to daycare.

"I will never forget it," James says. "The earthquake happened at 2:46 p.m., and after one minute of violent shaking most of the clocks stopped, which meant that for weeks throughout the city, clocks read 2:47 p.m. A strange reminder."

Marika remembers heading to the sports field upon evacuation of the school, just as she'd practiced many times in earthquake drills.

"We left the school and the weird thing is when we got outside it started to snow," she says, recalling that haunting image.

The school is located about 15 kilometres from the coast, putting it outside the tsunami zone but still in the middle of chaos. Miraculously, nobody was hurt.

The children were loaded onto school buses to keep warm. After an hour, they were allowed to go back into the school in pairs to collect backpacks and coats. Marika and a friend went into the school just as an aftershock hit.

"A teacher told us to leave the school immediately," she says. "I was terrified."



'I want to be on the ice'

Earthquakes can become almost routine in Japan, but Marika's father says he knew this one was different.

"Amazingly, you can become conditioned to earthquakes," James says. "The more you experience them, the more you know which ones are serious or not. The only time I ever felt worried or scared was with this big one. You just didn't know who was going to be safe."

Kiyo's head daycare teacher drove him home, and with the family reunited the Stewards played host to a number of different people, including faculty and students, until they could be reunited with their own families. Their house was a mess but structurally sound, so they pushed the debris to one side and went about solving the practical issues of finding food and staying warm. As a North Bay, Ont., native, James turned to his roots and started collecting firewood from a nearby forest for cooking outdoors and thinking of ways to gather resources. They went back to the school when it was safe to collect whatever supplies they could: water bottles and snacks from the staff room and batteries and incidentals from around the school. As is typical with this close-knit family, they framed the challenges they faced with a spirit of adventure.

With so many pressing concerns, how does figure skating even enter into the picture? James and Alana Steward say they are a "sports family" and that a lot of their routines revolve around Marika and Taia's skating.  It seemed to them that the best course of action was to try and find a way of making things seem as normal as they could. This included finding a way of getting their daughters on the ice as soon as possible.

Marika's passion for the sport is undeniable.

"I was thinking I just want to skate. I don't care if I ever go to school again but I want to be on the ice. I love it so much. It's practically my life."



In search of ice

There are two rinks in Sendai. The first is the year-round Sendai Ice Rink, the home of 2010 junior men's world champion Yuzuru Hanyu and 2006 Olympic ladies champion Shizuka Arakawa. The rink building was sufficiently damaged by the earthquake that it was closed for almost five months for repairs. 

The other rink is a seasonal one which is open only until the end of March. Two weeks after the earthquake, when regular cell service was starting to be restored, the girls' Japanese coach, Ms. Nanami Abe, called to say they could skate for three days on the seasonal rink until it closed. Fortunately for the Stewards, they had a full tank of gas in their car at a time when gas was not readily available. In fact, it took a full six weeks before buying gas in the city wasn't impossible.

Marika and her family grabbed training time where they could in places as far away as Hokkaido and Tokyo.

"In April, May and June we were all over the place," Marika says. "We found out there was a rink open four hours north in Hachinohe. It was a seasonal rink. Our club team went there. We travelled there for four days. Then we found out that there was a rink six hours south in Niigata where we went two times in April."

Skaters train intensely and base their whole year on being able to practice on the ice every day without fail. Even though she missed about three weeks, the layoff doesn't seem to have hurt Marika.

Canadian coach Michelle Leigh says Marika's strengths are many.

"Do you have enough paper? At the top of the list, she is a great listener and a great jumper. She is willing to train very hard. When she and Taia leave me to go back to Japan, it is with a list of tasks like work on your choreography and your posture. When they return to Canada they have always improved."

Leigh and Marika keep in touch via email and occasionally video. It is a situation that, although not ideal, is working very well given the challenges of long-distance coaching.

Mixed emotions

The situation in Sendai is slowly improving, although the Steward family knows it's not back to normal and may never be.

"The way we live our lives is different from Canadians," James says. "For example, every night we now leave our bathtub full of water just in case. Water is the most essential thing in an earthquake. Without it you cannot survive for long. We think about the earthquake every day."

The re-opening of the Sendai Ice Rink on July 24, 2011, was a day of mixed emotions for James. Walking into the building and seeing so many familiar faces was like an important piece of a puzzle locking into place. Olympians Shizuka Arakawa and Daisuke Takahashi sent flowers of congratulations. It was like Sendai's skating family could finally get back on track.

James Steward is philosophical about the lessons they have learned as a family.

"Perseverance. Stick with things. Be thankful for what you have and never give up."

For Marika, making it through to the Challenge this year given the extraordinary obstacles is a miracle in itself. Maybe, though, it's just another competition for a girl who says, "Skating is my life."

End of Story Content

Back to accessibility links

Story Social Media

End of Story Social Media

Comments are closed.