For Yoshimi Ozaki, it's always "better late than never."
Although she participated in track and field events in high school, the classic late bloomer never made it to a national-level competition. She never even bothered to try and run a marathon until eight years after joining a corporate track and field team. Now, at age 30, Ozaki will be representing Japan in the women's marathon at this summer's London Olympics.
"If we were to refer to 'The Tortoise and the Hare' fable, Ozaki is definitely the tortoise who went at her own pace slowly, but steadily," said Dai-ichi Life Insurance Co. track and field coach Sachiko Yamashita.
Ozaki grew up at the foot of the Tanzawa Mountains in Yamakita, Kanagawa Prefecture, and built up a strong lower body. She didn't start training in track and field until high school. She played basketball until junior high school, but just happened to enter a local track and field meet, where she caught the attention of Yasuo Ishizuka, head of the track and field team at Soyo High School in Odawara.
Ozaki's time was mediocre. But Ishizaki instantly noticed something special.
"Her form was tight and clean," said the 57-year-old coach. "I wanted to coach her."
What Ishizuka didn't know at the time was another trait that would later propel Ozaki to excellence--persistence.
In the fall of Ozaki's second year at Soyo High School, Ishizuka told the track and field team to do interval runs consisting of 300-meter dashes and a 100-meter jog. He only ordered 10 sets, but the team members became competitive and continued running. Ozaki followed her same-age rivals, and continued running as others dropped out of the competition. In the end, only Ozaki and another girl remained. After they had run 50 sets, Ishizuka had to order them to stop.
The next day, Ozaki came down pneumonia and had to miss school. Ishizuka was impressed that Ozaki was able to push herself to such limits. She was quiet and shy, but had a strong fire burning inside her. That soon became her signature trait.
But Ozaki wasn't fast enough to advance to national-level high school competitions. And because of that, no university or corporate team recruited the young runner during her senior year of high school.
Ozaki only managed to continue running because Ishizuka recommended her to Yamashita.
"Ozaki can become a great athlete if she has the right opportunity," Ishizuka told Yamashita. "She has something special."
But once she joined Dai-ichi Life Insurance, Ozaki suffered from injuries and anemia. Despite having always wanted to run the marathon, she lacked the confidence to keep up with the team's marathon training. So she continued her track and field career as a regular employee who had to schedule her training around her 9-to-5 day job.
She slowly began producing results in ekiden relay and other races, and became a full-time athlete with corporate funding five years after she joined Dai-ichi Life Insurance. She ran her first marathon eight years after joining the company.
In the past few years, Ozaki has been producing impressive results in the marathon. In 2008, she won the Tokyo International Women's Marathon--which was only her second attempt at running a full marathon.
At the time, she gained media attention as Japan's ace runner, but struggled with the selection races for the 2012 London Olympics.
Last summer, Ozaki placed a dismal 18th at the world championships. At the November 2011 Yokohama Women's Marathon, she narrowly came in second after the winner ran past her in the last 1-kilometer leg of the race.
At times, she felt so frustrated she almost quit running. But after receiving encouragement from a former teammate from high school, she decided to try for the London Olympics.
Now Ozaki is more determined than ever about her Olympic dream.
"I want to compete on the world's most glamorous stage," she said. "There isn't one single race that I'm completely satisfied with."
In March, Ozaki won one of the few remaining Olympic tickets by winning the Nagoya International Women's Marathon, and true to form, it was the last Olympic selection race.
Now, she is able to laugh at her latest last-minute achievement.
"I always need a lot of time to accomplish something," she said.
Meanwhile, Ozaki's success has others in the track and field industry reconsidering training methods and career development.
"There is a limit to the results athletes can produce in a short period of time," Ishizuka said. "I have witnessed what a 10-year or 20-year training menu can achieve.
"Races are a microcosm of our lives. I hope Ozaki gains confidence from the fact that she had worked steadily to get to where she is today."
- « Prev
- Next »