"Becoming Undefeatable for the Gold " - Track Racing Cyclist Yudai Nitta
Nitta's unusual talent was something that everyone could recognize. However, it took a bit of time before he could spread out his wings and fly forth. Winning second place at the Asian Games held in 2018 was his first experience to win at a large global event. The following February in 2019, he won the silver medal again in the World Championship.
Being 33 years old is not exactly the expected age to be an athlete. However, that win woke the world up to Nitta's story. To start off, we had him tell us about this accomplishment.
"By the time it became about representing Japan, it was like, right, good job, congratulations. I mean, in order for us to go to the Olympics, first the spots (the number of athletes that a country can send) have to be secured, which is decided by a cumulative points system based on international tournaments—the most important of which is the World Championship. In that sense, winning the silver medal could be thought of as adding positive momentum towards the Tokyo Olympics for the Japanese team."
In fact, Nitta's silver medal at the World Championship in 2018, following Kawabata Tomoyuki's silver in 2017, was the first time in 25 years that Japanese athletes won second place two years in a row. What is more, in the previous year, Nitta had watched, with his own eyes, Kawabata competing on the tracks. Recounting his memories of that moment, he continues his tale.
"I got goosebumps from seeing how awesome Kawabata-san was. Until then, I didn't really have a sense of the wider world, but after that I started seeing the possibilities. It is just that there was a big difference between the way Kawabata-san and I reacted. He was probably frustrated about only getting silver, right? I always thought he should be happy about it, but after I got silver myself, I realized, "Oh, this is how it feels." (chuckles)
"There is a chance to receive a medal on the highest stage in the world. Since there are six cyclists, the probability is one in two. Under those circumstances, the desire to take the gold medal starts fighting with the sense of responsibility that I must win the medal. I keep thinking about it until the very end of the race. It may look like the gold is waiting for you right outside. But in the time it takes to go outside, if the other competitors overtake you one by one, then you lose the medal. Those thoughts flashed across my mind for a moment and my pace dulled. Then, silver. It really is frustrating after all."
But that struggle is also a big attraction of Olympic "Keirin."
Let us take a moment to explain what Keirin is. This competitive sport is a cycling race, based on the Japanese government-regulated gambling sport of the same name (let us call it "Japanese Keirin.") However, it is no exaggeration to say the two are completely different.
First, the length of the track. In "Japanese Keirin", it is called the bank, and its length can be between 333m and 500m, but in the Olympic "Keirin," the track length is just 250m. The angle of inclination, called cant in "Japanese Keirin" is around 30 degrees, giving it a relatively long track circumference, but in Olympic "Keirin," it is 45 degrees.
Second, the biggest difference is in the line versus individual dynamic. In "Japanese Keirin", in order to minimize the effect of wind and other variables, people, mostly regional athletes, work together to line up in a row. During the actual race, the showdown takes place with two or three of these lines set up.
On the other hand, Olympic "Keirin" is about individuals keeping each other in check throughout the race. In other words, the individual ability of the athletes is put more to the test. Nitta competes actively in both of these two different forms at the same time.
Overcoming numerous barriers on the path to the Olympics
After watching the Nagano Olympics held in 1998, Nitta set his heart on participating. He was 12 at the time. Since he had already competed in some national cycling competitions by then, he decided to aim for bike racing. Back then, he had to commute through the mountain, Mt. Seaburi, on an almost daily basis. Mt. Seaburi in his city of Aizuwakamatsu of Fukushima Prefecture, with an elevation of 863m, was his training ground.
"Ever since sixth grade, I got to practice with the Aizu Technical High School's bicycle club. I was really lucky that the high school students were super helpful and even came to my house to invite me to join them. I was a moody person, and since Mt. Seaburi is really steep, there were a lot of days when I did not want to practice. They were willing to slow down to match my pace and ride with me, even if it interfered with their practice."
"Since their goal was reaching the national level competition, I think it was a waste of time for them. Despite that, they still achieved their goals. Having witnessed that determination gave me a vague sense of what it takes to be successful. Even now, being able to aim for the Olympics is only possible because of the precious time I spent with them, so I am deeply thankful for that."
After he entered Fukushima Prefectural Shirakawa High School, his training on Mt. Seaburi bore fruit. He won first place in an inter-scholastic 1km trial competition, second place in the junior team sprint event at the Asian Cycling Championships, as well as achieving a number of other results. His accomplishments were recognized by being admitted without the need for testing to the Japan Keirin School (now Japan Institute of Keirin, JIK.) The school was famous at the time for its brutal training and strict rules. Despite that, Nitta had a higher goal to pursue.
"Life under the strict rules was not painful. More importantly, it was irritating that I could not tell whether my skill was improving. I was not able to attend any outside competitions, so I was always wondering whether I would be able to beat other athletes who continued competing in university or even my high school juniors. I had a strict training regime in school, so my expectation was that I might be able to win... but I still had to spend a year with those feelings of uncertainty."
After graduating, he was fully focused on Japanese Keirin competition and aimed for the Olympics. However, he did not qualify for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Actually, he did not even qualify for screening. At that time, he had a painful realization: "Athletes who can't stand out in Japanese Keirin will never be selected to represent Japan." From then on, he started aiming to be the best in Japanese Keirin.
In 2011, he reached SS rank (the rank given to athletes who perform especially well even among S class athletes, which is the highest class in Keirin) for the first time, and won a Grade I race, the highest grade. He started to gain attention, and in the 2012 London Olympics, he was able to participate in the team sprint event. His team finished in eighth place.
"Being able to experience the Olympics was a good thing. However, the sponsoring country England was overwhelmingly strong. Although this is speaking in hindsight, compared to them, I felt that we had almost no chance from the onset to win any medals."
Unable to do anything else due to being completely exhausted from training.
After London, Nitta started thinking more about whether his balanced pursuit of both Japanese Keirin and Olympic Keirin was still right. At that time, a third of every month was Japanese Keirin race days, and all athletes had to complete the entire schedule. During gap days, he was at the national team's training camp in Izu of Shizuoka Prefecture, which had the only wooden track. He spent his days in a sense of limbo, not fully committed to either.
"I started wondering whether there was any point in going to the training camp for short bursts instead of for sustained training. That is why, since I wanted to create a better environment, I started the track team called Dream Seeker. That was in April of the Rio (de Janeiro Olympics) year. I wanted to actively participate in international races with that team."
In the end, Nitta was unable to attend Rio. That year, the Japan team suffered a crushing defeat. But then, in autumn of that year, the situation changed completely. The Japan Cycling Federation and the Japan Keirin Autorace Foundation (JKA, the foundation that promotes Keirin and auto racing) undertook bold reforms intended for the development of cycling track athletes. They recruited Benoît Vétu, who had led the Chinese women's team to take gold in the team sprint event at Rio as head coach, and made adjustments to reduce the burden of Japanese Keirin to allow athletes to focus on cycling track. With that, the wish that Nitta had always sought was finally realized.
Currently, on days without Japanese Keirin races, he is fully engaged with training in Izu. Monday, Wednesday, and Friday mornings are for muscle training; Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday afternoons are spent practicing on the track. Wednesday afternoons and Saturdays are for road training (biking on the road). Sundays are dedicated to rest and recuperation. Apart from a couple of days of vacation every year, this regimen has continued ever since the winter of 2016. It is almost the same lifestyle as when he was locked up in the Japanese Keirin training school.
"I am so fatigued that I cannot do anything else. Just getting up in the mornings is bad enough. Even though it is what I wanted, it is still unpleasant. At first, I was fed up with the thought that this would continue for another three years. But now, the thought that I only have however many more days left to practice is stronger."
"The current situation is that the spots determining who can participate in the Tokyo Olympics have not even been decided (as of June 2020). If I am selected, I have to go for the gold. To that end, it is important in the period from now on to develop my true strength. Earlier, the judo athlete Ono Shohei told me this. "If you are overwhelmingly strong, you won't lose" (chuckles.) Indeed, he is absolutely right, and I think that is what we lack. If we can make a condition where we cannot lose no matter what, I think we can take on the Olympics with self-confidence."
"In the next six months, the first thing is not to get injured. That would be the end. Next, do a solid job with the daily training. That would be the minimum, and I will make efforts to go above and beyond that. Then, building motivation towards the race. This will be my final Olympics. I absolutely want to participate and take the gold."
First appearance in “Tarzan” No.779, Jan. 4 2020