The Yomiuri ShimbunRace walker Takayuki Tanii is set to head to the Rio de Janeiro Olympics with the aim of overcoming a regrettable experience from four years ago at the London Games.
The 33-year-old Tanii, who won the bronze medal at the world championships last year, realized something was wrong during a workout in Britain just ahead of the London Games. He first thought it was simply heartburn, but he experienced the same kind of pain even when he slowed down his practice pace.
He went to a local hospital about two weeks before the event, and was diagnosed with pneumothorax, or a collapsed lung. He wasn’t able to train for five days, and said his lungs seemed to shrink and he felt short of breath.
Tanii took part in the 50-kilometer race, but he had to drop out shortly after the 35-kilometer mark as he looked to go after the lead group.
“I wonder what would have happened afterward if my condition was good,” Tanii said.
This bitter experience, however, became the springboard for his development, ushering in a change in his mind-set. It cleared away the hesitation and anxiety in his mind, helping him reach the right balance of not being “excessively obsessed or dispassionate” about the sport.
He also gained confidence in his ability, saying, “I thought I would be able to break my personal best and compete with the world’s top race walkers [under the right conditions].”
After returning from London, he put his focus on how to put his condition to peak at big meets. He used to have extremely hard workouts, but the harshness also made him occasionally interrupt practices because of fatigue. After the London Games, he put meticulous attention on managing his physical condition, changing the menu of his practice based on his heart rate and body temperature, which he measured each morning.
The changes had a dramatic effect. He won the gold medal at the 2014 Asian Games in the 50-kilometer race in 3 hours 40 minutes 19 seconds, improving his personal best by more than 3 minutes. Last August, he won the bronze at the worlds in Beijing in 3:42:55, becoming the first Japanese medalist in race walking at worlds. The medal secured him a berth at the Rio Games.
As his fourth Olympic Games approach, Tanii seeks to be the first Japanese race walker to win an Olympic medal.
“For my daughter, it seems an easy task — she says to me, ‘Please win,’” a smiling Tanii said.
Unplanned course to walking
Tanii, who hails from Namerikawa, Toyama Prefecture, went to Takaoka Koryo High School as a long-distance runner, but suffered a leg injury soon after joining the school’s athletics club.
His fate changed when Yutaka Kitayama, then coach of the club, recommended Tanii take up race walking as part of his rehab from the injury. Tanii excelled rapidly, gaining selection to the prefectural race walking team that went to the National Games after just several months.
Kitayama’s advice was simple: “Watch your form,” the coach repeatedly told Tanii. The sport has some unique rules, such as one foot must be in visible contact with the ground at all times. “If you walk with the perfect form, you’ll be faster before you know it,” Kitayama told Tanii.
The athlete remembers Kitayama handing him a sheet of paper in his second year at the school. It was a list of race walking events over 10 years, including not only high school events and national meets, but also worlds and the Olympics.
The race walker appreciates his high school days in building the “foundation of his career.”
The existence of a longtime rival has also spurred Tanii’s development. Yuki Yamazaki, who is one year younger than Tanii, is a Toyama city native and now a teammate at the Self-Defense Forces’ Physical Training School.
At the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Yamazaki finished seventh in the 50-kilometer race, while Tanii was 29th. Tanii described Yamazaki as “a guy I want to compete against forever.”
However, the fate of the rivals drew a sharp contrast at the national 50-kilometer race walk championship in April that served as the final domestic qualifier for Rio.
Tanii took the lead early in the race and remained in front throughout to win in 3:44:12, while Yamazaki, who was looking for his fourth consecutive Olympic berth, was forced to withdraw and miss out on Rio.
After the race, Tanii expressed his sentiment to the rival.
“A national team member must shoulder the wishes of athletes who cannot make it to the Olympics,” said Tanii, who said his goal at Rio is clear. “I will bring a medal to Toyama Prefecture, which gave me the chance to start race walking. That is my role.”Speech