The Yomiuri Shimbun While canoeist Takuya Haneda was at a meet in the Czech Republic in 2005, he sent a letter to his father, Kunihiko.
Still a third-year student at Tojaku High School in Aichi Prefecture, Haneda requested that he be allowed to move to Europe after graduation to hone his skills where the sport is strongest.
“I promise to put a medal around your neck,” he added as a show of his determination.
Fast forward 11 years to the Rio de Janeiro Olympics, where Haneda fulfilled his pledge and earned a place in Japanese Olympic history.
On Aug. 9, the 29-year-old won the bronze medal in the men’s single slalom, becoming the first-ever Japanese to win an Olympic medal in the sport.
“Ten years ago, nobody believed [a Japanese] could win a medal in this sport,” Haneda said after the race. “But from that time, I’ve practiced all out with the aim of becoming No. 1 in the world.”
Born in Toyota, Aichi Prefecture, Haneda started canoeing at 9, although he was not particularly absorbed with the sport at first. But his attitude changed when, as a third-year middle school student, he competed at the world junior championships in Poland.
Finishing 42nd, he was left in awe of the speed and power of his foreign rivals, saying it was “on a different level.”
But he also came to realize, “Canoeing is fun. It is worth devoting my life to this.”
He began his transformation after entering Tojaku High School, where he would wake up at 6 a.m. every day for a one-hour morning workout that he never missed. Thinking about his future progress, Haneda’s sole post-graduation plan was to head to Europe.
The reason was the infrastructure for the sport. Japan had no artificial canoe courses, in which obstacles can be set intentionally to alter the flow of the rapids to increase difficulty. He feared he would never be able to catch up with the overseas competition if he stayed in Japan, a sentiment he expressed in his letter to his father.
Kunihiko, also a caneoist, shared his concerns and recommended that his son make the move to Europe. Haneda arrived in Slovakia in March 2006. He initially had troubles in communication, and had to get by with broken English.
But he soon found a way to learn Slovak by using vulgar language he learned through jokes. Slovakian friends, amused by the Japanese who used indecent words, taught Haneda more words, which enabled him to solve the language problem in less than a year. He has been based in the country since then.
At the 2012 London Olympics, Haneda finished seventh, leading him to set a theme in the run-up to Rio of improving his technique to overcome the physical gap between himself and the European and U.S. canoeists.
Under the guidance of Milan Kuban, his coach of six years, he practiced every day on a course in which the difficulty of the gates was set harder than those in international competition. His improved technique was on full display in Rio, where the course was more difficult than the two previous Olympics.
While six of the 10 finalists received penalties for touching gates, Haneda made no major mistakes. He finished third in 97.44 seconds, 0.13 ahead of the fourth-place finisher.
A decade after making the move to Slovakia, Haneda got over a wall and won an elusive Olympic medal. But he’s not finished.