By Kazuhiko Hirano / Yomiuri Shimbun Sportswriter Taking part in the 2012 London Olympics while still a university student made Kaori Kawanaka feel like the kid sister tagging along with the women’s national archery team.
Kawanaka worked hard to catch up with Miki Kanie and Ren Hayakawa, both senior archers who belonged to corporate teams, and the trio won bronze at London — the first Olympic medal for the Japanese female archers.
“I felt like I was along for the ride with my big sisters,” recalled Kawanaka, 24.
After the London Games, Kanie retired from competition and Hayakawa failed to qualify for the Rio de Janeiro Olympics. As a result, Kawanaka’s status on the team has changed. She has now taken on the role of the opening archer — a step up from the second archer, who bears less of a burden.
The first archer has the important task of building momentum for the team, but Kawanaka is free from unnecessary pressure. “I can’t wait for the Olympics to arrive. I’m looking forward to the challenge,” she said.
Kim Chung Tae, the coach of Kindai University’s archery team, remembers Kawanaka asking him a question when she entered the university in the spring of 2010: “How can I make it to the Olympics?”
The young archer was a winner at the Inter-High School Championships team event. However Kim, a former South Korean national team member, looked at Kawanaka’s thin frame and 1.59-meter height and thought, “Umm. This is going to be difficult.”
What the coach actually told her was different: “You’ll need to take 500 shots every day.”
Kawanaka took his advice literally. The number of shots taken during her regular team practices totaled 300 at most, so she stayed late to take additional shots, working hard to achieve the proper form. What drove Kawanaka was belief: “I thought, ‘This practice will lead me to the Olympics.’”
Kawanaka made her presence felt on the international stage last season, finishing fifth in the World Cup Final in October. She was part of the Japanese national team that beat South Korea — which won seven straight Olympic gold medals through the London Games — in the final of a World Cup event in Antalya, Turkey, in May.
“I used to think overseas athletes were great archers who were different from me, but my thinking has changed — I now aim to compete with them for a medal,” Kawanaka said.
Her advantage lies in her concentration, which she developed through intensive training. She explained what happens when her focus peaks on the target, placed 70 meters away: “I strongly sense the yellow [9- and 10-point] sections. I feel like, ‘This time, let’s target the edge of the 10-point ring.’”
In archery, heavier arrows are preferred because they sway less in the wind. Kawanaka has put more effort into weight training and yoga to reinforce her physical ability, and she is now able to handle more powerful bows similar to the ones used by her foreign rivals.
At Rio, Kawanaka is seeking to win her second straight team medal. She is also aiming to become the first Japanese female archer to finish on the podium in the individual event.
She has earned the trust of teammates, Yuki Hayashi, 31, and Saori Nagamine, 23. Nagamine will be making her Olympic debut at Rio, and expressed special respect for Kawanaka: “She keeps her composure even at foreign competitions.”