Internationals. You don’t see them very often in the Promotion class. The men of Victoria have Chilean Felipe Renz Boher, Sara Puglisi representing Italy and Orange-Red this year. But the ladies of Were Di also have a real international in their midst this season. Japanese Olympian Mai Toriyama (28) is fulfilling one of her big dreams at the club in Tilburg. “Of course I miss family and friends, but I enjoy every day here.”
Tilburg’s Were Di is known as a warm club. A where conviviality is of paramount importance, but where hockey is also practiced at a high level. Seven years ago, the ladies of Were Di were on the verge of promotion to the big league. It then lost the playoffs on penalties to Bloemendaal.
From company to club competition
In recent years, Eric van der Pol’s team has developed into a stable mid-engine in the Promotion Class. It’s been going well in recent seasons, but never made a fist. Not exactly a breeding ground for internationals, you would think. Toriyama thought otherwise.
Van der Pol: ‘Mai has two dreams. Games at the Olympic Games in Paris in 2024 and playing in the Dutch competition. Last season she was in contact with Joep van der Coelen, who was then assistant coach at Hurley. It didn’t come to a switch. When Joep, like me, started working at Were Di this season, the ball started rolling.’
Things didn’t go very fast with the arrival of Toriyama. Van der Pol: ‘We talked to her. Did she want to play in the Promotion League? Did that fit her ambitions? We had a lot of contact with Japan. You don’t have clubs there, but they play a company league. Was the level of the Promotion Class high enough to stay in the race for the Paris Olympic squad? We discussed these kinds of questions with her and the staff of the Japanese national team.’
After all the objections were out of the blue, the deal was done. Van der Pol: ‘The level of the Promotion Class turned out to be about the same as that of the company competition in Japan. For Mai it was an absolute dream to come to the Netherlands to play hockey here. The advantage of playing at a slightly lower level is that she gets a lot of playing minutes during all matches. In the big leagues, we’ll just have to wait and see.’
Toriyama lives with team manager Gérard Opstelten this year. Van der Pol: ‘Mai receives Dutch lessons from his wife. She also learns to speak English. We as a club have tried to support her as much as possible in her sporting ambitions from the start. She trains herself every day in the morning. Then she does running and her own hockey drills. In addition, I give two extra afternoon training sessions. If those extra efforts lead to her playing in the big league next year, we will only applaud that as a team and club.’
Toriyama herself does not hide her ambitions. ‘Of course I would prefer to play at the highest level in the Netherlands’, she says, while the interview takes place via Google Translate . She translates every question into Japanese. The answers go back to English via Japanese. “At the same time, I am very grateful to play in the Promotion League and to be part of this team. I realize that I learn and grow a lot thanks to them.’
Although the translation programs still have to be used on a daily basis, according to the Japanese, the language barrier is not an obstacle, neither inside nor outside the lines. “I have clear ideas about the way I want to play. I barely speak English, but my teammates do their best to understand me. They are very nice and open.’
Coach Van der Pol agrees with his pupil’s words. “It’s a trade-off. Mai’s attitude is great. In the field, she always acts in the best interest of the team. She is never selfish. In addition, she participates fully in all social activities. From carnival to King’s Day. At the same time, the team is social, open and fun. Moreover, they find it interesting and cool to see how an international like Mai approaches hockey.’
Enjoy every day
Toriyama is the only player of Were Di who has no work or study obligations. ‘When I’m not playing hockey, I learn English or Dutch, I go to a café or I visit other cities. Of course, I miss my family and friends sometimes. But because I have so many nice people around me in Tilburg, I enjoy my life here every day.’
Her first season in the Netherlands is almost over for the Japanese striker, the team’s top scorer with seven goals. With Were Di, she is still fighting for enforcement. The Tilburgers are now ninth, with the same number of points as number ten Leonidas. Toriyama: ‘Next year I would like to play in the Dutch league again. I don’t know where yet.’
Van der Pol: ‘You wish a player like Mai the very best. And no matter how the season ends, for us as a team, her presence was and is a valuable addition. With her attacking drive and top sports mentality, but certainly also her social personality, she inspires everyone around her.’