By Hiroshi Hirai / Japan News Staff WriterFor Yumi Kajihara, winning a gold medal at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics is not a dream but a very realistic goal. And it is one that she wants to achieve for her mother, Yuri.
A senior at the University of Tsukuba, Kajihara is a cycle racer specializing in track endurance races.
“My goal now is to win the gold medal in the omnium event on Aug. 9 here at the Izu Velodrome,” Kajihara, 22, said in a recent interview with The Japan News at the velodrome in the city of Izu, Shizuoka Prefecture. Aug. 9, 2020, is the last day of the Tokyo Olympics.
She is ready and has the confidence to do it.
“[Competing in] the Olympics has been a dream of mine,” Kajihara said. “But as my development has progressed, I can now picture the Olympic stage. With under one year to go, I want to further develop step by step to realize the goal.”
Kajihara only started cycle racing at high school six years ago, yet she has climbed the ranks and now finds herself competing among some of the best in the world.
She won gold in the omnium event at the third leg of the World Cup circuit in December, 2017, and became the first Japanese woman to win a track cycling World Cup event. She went on to win the fourth leg as well.
Kajihara started cycle racing after entering the University of Tsukuba’s Senior High School at Sakado in Saitama Prefecture.
A native of Wako, Saitama Prefecture, Kajihara started swimming when she was 1 year old. When she was a fourth-grader, Kajihara participated in national competitions until the second grade of junior high school.
However, she missed the chance to compete in the last year of junior high school. “I was unable to record a qualifying time for the national competition at a prefectural event. It was so disappointing,” she recalled.
She decided to enter a senior high school that had no swimming team “to experience something new” and her teachers advised her to join the cycle racing team.
She still swam for a club team while participating in the school cycling team. But gradually she got more into cycling.
“Swimming was racing against time. I was able to record times that improved by 0.01 second or so,” Kajihara said. “But when I started cycling, I was able to reduce my times by about three or four seconds. And I enjoyed that.”
In a relatively short time, Kajihara was achieving excellent results in cycling — she won five events at the Junior Asian Championships in February 2015.
After graduating from high school, she advanced to the University of Tsukuba, which has no cycling racing team.
Apart from the time she spends at national team training camps, she does everything else by herself.
“When I chose the university, I did so from the perspective of choosing a good environment in which I could compete at the world level,” Kajihara said.
This sounds like a contradiction, given the university that she chose has no cycling racing team.
“I wanted to create the best environment by myself, that’s why I entered a university without a cycling racing team,” she explained. “I thought of begining from scratch so I could become a self-sufficient athlete.”
So she trains and races as the sole member in the racing division of the university’s cycling club.
Kajihara makes up her own training programs based on advice from national team coaches and experts.
Having to make her own training programs must be tough. But, she said, “I love the process.”
She also likes to plan and think.
“It doesn’t matter if things don’t go as planned, but I’ve got a custom of ‘thinking and then acting,’” she said. “Instead of just going through training and racing without thinking, I like to think to myself: ‘What is this practice about?’ or ‘How should I race in this event?’”
The omnium event in track cycling certainly fits this way of thinking. It is a multiple race event that includes scratch, tempo, elimination and points races. Points are awarded in each race depending on the format. The rider who earns the most points is the winner.
“Cycling races are not about time. Especially events like omnium where you have to directly deal with other riders, you have to come up with good tactics to win,” Kajihara said.
Her planning and thinking also extend to the future. “I write messages to myself to read after finishing races or during periods of tough training,” she said. “Sort of messages of encouragement, like, ‘You did OK.’”
Kajihara is not completely alone in her endeavors. She has the full support of her mother Yuri, who acts as her training partner, driver, chef and secretary.
“My mother supports me in every aspect. She follows me on a motorcycle [on road practice] and she drives me to domestic races,” Kajihara said, adding that Yuri prepares nutritionally balanced meals for her and also manages media appointments.