Yaeko Fujishima sits in a chair and shouts instructions to elementary school athletes.
“Your body line is terrible,” she says. “Don’t wobble!”
Tears begin to well in the eyes of the young female gymnasts. But Fujishima eventually smiles and says, “That’s good,” and the gymnasts go on to their next move.
The 70-year-old Fujishima founded the Fujishima Rhythmic Gymnastics Club in the middle of a residential district in Matsuyama, Kiyose city. The gym has trained three Olympians so far, including one who was chosen this year to represent Japan at the London Olympics--18-year-old Nina Yokota Syed.
Syed, who has a Pakistani father and Japanese mother, started rhythmic gymnastics in the first grade.
“I wanted to join a club where I can exercise because my body was so inflexible," Syed says.
Fujishima remembers Syed as a shy, self-conscious girl who “couldn’t even stand with her back straight.”
Fujishima’s training method is to “train hearts.” She lets the new kids start by simply having fun--running around, playing with the equipment, playing games and throwing the ball. Fujishima says the goal is to invigorate the girls with the joy of being able to play freely.
Rhythmic gymnastics requires not only technical skills, but also the artistic abilities. Syed says the Fujishima gym taught her how to use her entire body to express herself and maximize the effect of her striking features and her long legs and arms.
The gym was also home to former Olympians Yukari Kawamoto and Akane Yamao. They both had very flexible back muscles, something found lacking in Syed.
“Nina was really inflexible," Fujishima says. "It took her so much more time than other gymnasts to learn one move.
“She’s a slow learner, but she did it. She had determination.”
Syed adds: “There were times when it was really hard for me. But it’s because of this gym that I’m able to grow into an Olympian. I am truly grateful.”
Polishing their technical skills and artistic expression under Russian head coach Inna Bystrova, the members of Japan's national rhythmic gymnastics team are looking ahead to London. Syed is confident that her team will do well.
“We’ve been working hard to showcase moves and facial expressions that really match the music,” she says. "We are athletes, performers and actresses. I hope that the audience will see how much effort we put into using our entire bodies, joints and facial expressions.”
At the gym where Syed blossomed into an Olympic team member, roughly 100 elementary school kids and junior high kids train. On the wall is a picture of Syed and other junior athletes.
“This girl is really talented,” Fujishima says of one of her prodigies.
The next Olympian may be among one of these junior athletes at the gym.
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