The Yomiuri ShimbunThis is the third installment of a series.
It was a dazzling sprint. It was in a rugby match between the Japanese and Georgian national teams in Aichi Prefecture on June 23. When Japan’s Lomano Lava Lemeki, who belongs to Top League side Honda Heat, received a pass along the touch line on the right side in the second half, he skillfully avoided three or four defenders and dove over the goal line to score for Japan.
Lemeki is also expected to be a leading member of Japan’s rugby sevens squad at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
Born in New Zealand in 1989, Lemeki became a Japanese citizen in 2014. He was a member of the Japan’s rugby sevens team that finished fourth at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics. Lemeki, who stands 1.77 meters and weighs 92 kilograms was chosen as a member of the 15-member Japanese national team in 2015 for the first time.
“Running fast isn’t the only thing required in rugby. It’s running into each other that’s the most fun,” Lemeki said.
He suffered a career-threatening injury around two years ago, but managed to recover and return to the pitch after only about eight months. It was the behind-the-scenes contributions by specialists in sports medicine that fueled his recovery.
In a test match in Georgia on Nov. 12, 2016, Lemeki tore the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in his right knee. “Cruciate” means “cross-shaped.” The anterior and posterior cruciate ligaments form a cross as they support knee-joint movement.
Players who take part in rough contact sports such as rugby and judo are highly likely to end up twisting their knees and suffering knee ligament injuries. Eighty percent of cruciate ligament ruptures are to the ACL.
It often takes around a year for athletes to recover from ACL tears. Japan national team doctor Takuro Moriya’s advice was to “just stay calm and let it heal.” After discussing the injury with Lemeki’s Honda Heat team, Moriya, 42, entrusted Lemeki’s treatment to Osaka Prefecture University Prof. Shuji Horibe, 61, who has performed cruciate ligament surgeries on more than 3,000 patients.
On Nov. 30, 2016, Horibe inserted endoscopes and other tools into three small holes he had opened in Lemeki’s knee. He removed a section of tendon and bone from the lower kneecap, which he transplanted to replace the ACL. Including a foundational piece of bone in the transplant speeds up recovery. Lemeki was discharged from the hospital after about three weeks.
On Feb. 2, 2017, Lemeki visited the Japan Institute of Sports Sciences (JISS) in Tokyo. He was starting one-on-one rehab with then-trainer Takayuki Sudo, 50, under the direction of Sports Medical Center Director Toru Okuwaki, 59.
Said Sudo: “I wanted to make sure he didn’t lose any cardiorespiratory function or muscle strength in areas other than his injured knee.”
Along with exercises to improve knee flexibility, Lemeki also underwent around five hours of daily strength training such as swimming or equipment-based exercises that didn’t involve the legs. Two months after starting rehab, Lemeki was able to run at 70 percent strength.
On July 8, 2017, Lemeki appeared in a game for the first time in eight months and scored a try. Around a year later, he said: “I’m not worried about my knee, and I’m not worried about running into people. My goal is to be in the top eight at the World Cup games in Japan, and to win a medal in the Tokyo Olympics.”
Lemeki’s quick recovery was because of the close coordination of medical, rehabilitation and training specialists. Especially vital was the JISS, which was founded in 2001 to improve the competitiveness of Japanese athletes.
Said Okuwaki: “Some injuries are unavoidable if you want to be a top-level player, no matter what the sport. That’s why it’s so important to have a system for quick recovery.”
The JISS has eight full-time doctors including Okuwaki. In addition to treating injuries and internal illnesses, the institute also provides psychological counseling. It offers the most suitable treatment and rehabilitation program for each individual athlete according to their sport. More than 100 athletes go through rehab and recover from their injuries at the JISS every year.
Japan is aiming to win 30 gold medals in the Tokyo Olympics.
Former Sports Medical Center Director Takashi Kawahara, 66, said: “The JISS is a place that embodies the progress of sports medicine. With the right rehab and training, many athletes even come away doing better than before their injuries. All the work we’ve done until now is steadily starting to produce results.”
A few times a week, the JISS clinic receives phone calls from top athletes inquiring about drugs.
They ask things like, “What cold medicine should I buy?” and “Is it OK to take this medicine I was prescribed at the hospital?”
Full-time pharmacist Etsuko Kamihigashi is the one who responds to these questions. She carefully explains whether the drugs in question contain substances prohibited by the World Anti-Doping Agency.
There have been numerous instances of “accidental doping” in which athletes have unwittingly taken prohibited substances in over-the-counter drugs.
“The most important thing is for athletes to know how to contact a specialist when they need to,” Kamihigashi said.
She is one of the “sports pharmacists” certified by the Japan Anti-Doping Agency (JADA). JADA started the certification system in 2009 in cooperation with the Japan Pharmaceutical Association to train pharmacists with specialized knowledge. Pharmacists must pass an exam to be certified. Around 8,700 pharmacists were certified as of April this year.
JADA Chief Executive Officer Shin Asakawa said, “There will definitely be sports pharmacists working in the Olympic village in the 2020 Tokyo Games.”