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Devastation always on cyclist's mind

| Thursday, March 24, 2011

APELDOORN, Netherlands — Kazunari Watanabe was getting a massage after training in Tokyo when the earthquake that unleashed a devastating tsunami on Japan's main island reduced his family's home to rubble.

Less than two weeks later, the 27-year-old is back competing at the Track Cycling World Championships. He dedicated his ride Wednesday in the Japanese sprint team to the people of his homeland as they struggle to come to terms with the death and destruction.

"I am representing them," he said.

On Tuesday, the Japanese team rode a lap of the track and the opening ceremony paused for a moment of silence for quake victims. Japan finished 10th in the team sprint, and Watanabe will compete in the individual sprint and keirin this week. He said just being at the championships feels like a victory.

Next year, he hopes to race at the London Olympics.

After the quake, he spent a frantic afternoon trying without success to call his parents. They lived with his grandmother in Futaba, close to the Fukushima nuclear power plant that has been leaking radiation since being shaken by the quake and lashed by giant waves of the tsunami.

"It wasn't until my sister called me that night that I knew they were OK," Watanabe said through an interpreter as he cooled down after his race at the Omnisport velodrome.

His parents are staying in Yokohama, and Watanabe hasn't returned yet to the scenes of devastation. All he has seen so far of the place he grew up is a photo.

"The house was completely destroyed," he said.

He doesn't even know whether he will be able to return and help his family rebuild.

"If it is safe — no radiation — I want to go back," he said.

While his family survived, one of Watanabe's friends is still among the thousands missing and feared dead. Another friend is working close to the Fukushima nuclear plant, he said.

Traveling with the Japanese team to the Netherlands was a tough decision, but he decided to come in the hope his presence might serve as an inspiration to the people toiling in freezing temperatures to feed the homeless, clear wreckage and recover bodies.

"I want to show my encouragement to the people of Fukushima, my friends there," he said. "I want to show the world I am here and I am supporting them."

But even as he raced, he could not entirely shake the images of destruction from his head.

"When I am alone, I think a lot about this disaster," he said. "I am always thinking about it — even during a competition."

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