The Yomiuri ShimbunAfter years of frustration, Chisato Fukushima beat the only person who could challenge her among Japanese women sprinters.
The 28-year-old Fukushima finally rewrote her own national record in the 200 meters when she clocked 22.88 seconds at the Japan National Championships on Sunday in Nagoya, giving her a sixth straight title and earning her a berth at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics.
Fukushima’s time at Paloma Mizuho Stadium, helped by a 1.8 mps tailwind, cut 0.01 off the previous record she set back in 2010, and marked the first time she had broken 23 seconds since then.
“I was not surprised [by the time] as I thought I could do it,” a jubilant Fukushima said. “But it’s been a long time since I felt happy [after a race].”
Fukushima, who also qualified for Rio and extended her streak of national titles in the 100 on Saturday, dominated the 200 final from the start, accelerating with a speed that no other runner could match.
“She was already gone before I knew it,” said high schooler Ami Saito, who ran in the lane to the right of Fukushima and finished second.
Fukushima came off the corner with a formidable lead and finished 0.58 seconds ahead of Saito. Throwing out her arms after crossing the finish line, she kept jogging for another 50 meters with an elated look on her face.
“I’ve made it to this point because of the people who supported me,” she said.
“The record wasn’t created today. It became possible by working hard day in and day out,” she added, underscoring the struggles and hardships she had experienced in recent years.
Battling the pressure
Fukushima first rose to prominence in 2008, when she tied the Japan record of 11.36 in the 100 and qualified for the Beijing Olympics, where she became the first Japanese woman in 56 years to compete in an Olympic 100.
After claiming the national records as her own in both the 100 and 200 in 2009, Fukushima really turned it on in 2010. She established new marks in both events — 11.21 in the 100 and 22.89 in the 200 — and was regarded as the trailblazer for a new era in Japan women’s sprinting.
With unlimited potential, few could have imagined that she had hit a peak.
Fukushima qualified for a second Olympics in 2012, this time both in the 100 and 200. But she was eliminated in the first round in both races in London, as she had been in the 100 four years earlier.
Fukushima was harsh on herself, saying, “I achieved nothing other than just showing up [at the Games].”
After returning from London, Fukushima tried various training methods to find a way to run faster, already setting her eyes on the Rio Games. She decided that she needed to increase her strength, comparable to those of sprinters overseas.
But it was an idea opposed by Hiroyuki Nakamura, her coach at the Hokkaido High-Tech AC team. The 71-year-old Nakamura said her strength lies in her short, rapid-fire strides, adding: “You won’t be able to compete against foreign runners in terms of muscular power. It will kill your advantage.”
Still, Fukushima was determined to try it until being assured it would not work. But preparing with a regimen focused on weight training, she failed to meet the qualifying time in the 100 for the 2013 world championships, and she finished second at the Asian championships, which she had won two years before.
Realizing she had hit a wall, she concluded that she needed to go back to the basics. She changed her training program with the aim of polishing her speedy stride frequency, and regain sharpness in her races. The result was promising — she won the Asian 100 title in 2015 at 11.23, just 0.02 short of her national record.
And her effort to build muscle strength was not entirely fruitless. She increased her weight by three kilograms to 50 with her core-training exercises, which allowed her to lengthen her stride without a loss of speed.
“She could run faster without having to make an extra effort,” Nakamura said.
To raise the level of her workouts, Fukushima trains with male sprinters, although some have expressed concern that the extra strain could lead to injuries.
Indeed, she had troubles this spring, when she had to skip or withdraw from several meets in April and May because of a twinge in her right leg. However, she remained upbeat through the warm encouragement from her club teammates, national team members and fans.
“They told me I will be all right, and those simple words helped me. I didn’t take people’s words to heart this much when I was young and riding high. But now, the words really have an impact,” Fukushima said after Sunday’s race.
Heading to a third Olympics, Fukushima looks to prove as much to herself as anyone that she has returned to that level.