By Daichi Nishiguchi / Yomiuri Shimbun SportswriterWhen Kazuki Yazawa competes in his third straight Olympics in the canoe slalom this summer in Rio de Janeiro, he won’t be the only member of his family looking to make a splash.
Younger sister Aki, wiping away the bitter memory of missing out on the 2012 London Olympics, will make her first trip to the Olympics, where she will look to repay her older sibling and others for their invaluable support that enabled her to qualify for Rio.
In the canoe slalom, competitors race down rapids, passing in either an upstream or downstream direction as specified between gates consisting of two poles suspended above the river. The aim is to reach the finish in the shortest time.
Born in Iida, Nagano Prefecture, the 24-year-old Aki followed in the wake of her father, a former competitor, and brother to take up the sport as a third grader in primary school. In order to get specialized coaching, she left home after graduating from middle school to enter Higashino High School in Saitama Prefecture.
She lived with Kazuki, who was attending Surugadai University and conveyed his stoic attitude toward the sport. “He really loves canoeing, so that at any time during the day he will be thinking about ways to win,” Aki said.
Aki also went on to enter Surugadai, and in her sophomore year in 2011, she won the women’s kayak singles title at the NHK Cup, which established her as a strong candidate for the 2012 London Games.
However, in the autumn of that year, feeling the pressure of an Olympic qualifier, Aki washed out at the World Championships. She tightened up and, building up time penalties by missing gates, she was knocked out in the preliminary round. She had another chance at the final Asian qualifier, but failed to find her form again and missed a berth for the London Games.
That had an additional negative impact as it made it difficult to find an employer that would sponsor her after her college graduation. “I thought about quitting canoeing at the time,” she said.
But she rode out the rough waters with the help of warm support close to home.
Volunteers from her native Nagano Prefecture got together to set up a supporters’ association, and raised about ¥2 million in donations. That covered her expenses for the next 10 months, until Showa Aircraft Industry stepped in and hired her in February 2015 in conjunction with the Japanese Olympic Committee’s “Athnavi” employment support scheme.
Kazuki also did his part, coaxing her to attend training camps together by saying, “If you really want to make the Olympics, you have to join me.” He provided intensive one-on-one coaching, starting with the basics of form.
At the 2015 World Championships in London in September, she maintained her concentration despite some errors and finished 25th in the women’s kayak singles, making it as far as the semifinals. As she was among the top 15 based on the top finishers for each country or region, that earned her the elusive ticket to Rio.
“I thought, ‘The only way that I can repay my debt of gratitude to those who supported me is by achieving tangible results,’” Aki said.
Aki has started working with the Canadian single, whose boat and paddle are shaped differently than a kayak. The Canadian single has been adopted as a new women’s event from 2020, and her aim is to make the podium at the Tokyo Olympics that year.