"Perfection to both form and speed" - Race Walk Athlete Toshikazu Yamanishi

Originally published on Tarzan Web (June 8, 2021)
Having earned the right to contend at the Olympics early in 2019, Yamanishi's many years of steady and persistent efforts finally bore fruit during his first year in the workforce.
Toshikazu Yamanishi, born in 1996. 164cm, 55kg, Body Fat Ratio 7%. Discovered race walking at Kyoto’s Municipal Horikawa Senior High School. Won first place at the World Youth Championships in Athletics and Inter-High School Tournament during his senior year. After enrolling in Kyoto University, he won first place in the 2017 Summer Universiade. In 2019, he won a gold medal at the World Athletics Championships and was chosen to represent Japan at the Tokyo Olympics.

You won't believe how intense "walking" can be.

Race walking may be one of the most intense form of sports. Anybody who has ever watched a race before will know how dreadful it looks, athletes bent over on the street and gasping heavily. Some athletes even fall flat on their back, while the other athletes calmly walking past those who dropped out.

In response to the comment, "it's such an extreme sport", Yamanishi instantly remarks, "it's similar to a marathon, as the distance and time are long. Undoubtedly, there are many uncontrollable factors, and you never know what might happen."


Yet we don't really see marathon athletes collapsing that much. The fact that they are "walking" may be connected to how arduous it is. For the 20 km race walk, which is Yamanishi's main battlefield, the top athletes walk at a pace of 3 min 50 sec per km. If you run a full marathon at that pace, it would take 2 hours 40 minutes.

Obviously, walking continuously for 40km and above at this pace would probably be difficult. What's amazing is that they are able to achieve a sub three-hour time, something which is a dream for most normal runners. In a way, they are superhumans.


I've learned how to control the race.

Yamanishi won the gold medal at the World Championship at Doha, Qatar in 2019, earning the right to compete at the Tokyo Olympics. This race was also tough. Under harsh conditions of 32 degrees Celsius and 77% humidity, the race started at 11:30 P.M. This measure was taken because it would be extremely hot if the race was held during daytime.

Seven kilometers into this race, Yamanishi took off on his own and led the rest of the race all the way to the finishing line with a time of 1h 26m 34s. It would seem like a perfect, crushing victory. However, he doesn't think of it that way.

"As I only finished 15s ahead of second place, while I managed to take the lead as the race developed, it was a really thin margin and I think it was a really close match."

However, the fact of the matter is that he was able to control the pace of the race and won it. That is not an easy thing to do. Usually, athletes observe their opponents to figure out their next move as they compete. It takes a lot of courage to speed up at the seven-kilometer mark, which is not even half of the race, as it is also quite risky. However, Yamanishi pulled it off.


"Until Doha, I was the type to go along with the flow of the race trying to figure out the decisive moment to get in front, but this has slowly changed in the past couple of years. I am trying out ways to actively control the race, and I am slowly starting to get the hang of it.

For athletes without basic physical advantage, we have to try and figure out whatever gives us even a slim chance of winning the race. So, we would conserve our energy while keeping up with the crowd and bet everything on that one chance. For me, I feel that I have gotten stronger and my pace has also improved. Thanks to that, I have learned to plan my pace in 20 km races in a more versatile way, which I think has enabled me to control the race."

From an unknown athlete in junior high school. To race walk in high school.

Extraordinary physical abilities. Yamanishi was not one of those boys born with such a body. Attending swimming class and playing baseball with his friends, he was a very ordinary kid. However, one incident changed his path in life. In fourth grade, his teacher gave the class a sheet that looked like a sugoroku board game (in which players throw a dice and move forward towards the goal) on which they would get to move forward a square if they ran one lap around the schoolyard. Determined to cover all the squares, he ran every day before class started.


"As a result of my earnest and continuous running and training, my running speed increased compared to the previous year. It was fun. When I look back now, that formative experience was what got me started."

Yamanishi's favorite motto is "Perseverance is the Key to Success." His own experience with steadily improving himself during his childhood must have taught him the importance of doing just that.

Then, he went on to Nagaoka Third Junior High School in Nagaokakyo, Kyoto. He joined the Track and Field Club and started getting real training. He trained with a focus on running 800m-3,000m distances. However, he could not even qualify for the prefectural tournaments. Nevertheless, "throughout the training, my teacher taught me the joy of both being stoic and running long distances," which made him decide to join the Track and Field Club again when he advanced to Kyoto Municipal Horikawa Senior High School. And he discovered race walking there.

"I had seniors who were race walking. While I was only slightly interested, I requested to train with them - the very next day, the club advisor and teacher, (Kohei) Funakoshi, gave me a training program."

Just two months after starting race walking, he won the rookie's tournament in Kyoto Prefecture. However, as race walk is only picked up as a sport by high schoolers and beyond, it felt to him like "I just happened to win among a group of amateurs." Despite that, he went on to get fourth place in the Kinki Regional Tournament and second place in the Inter-High School Tournament during his sophomore year. Finally, during his senior year, he achieved the impressive feat of winning both the World Youth Championships in Athletics and the Inter-High School Tournament.

"Coming in second at the Inter-High during my sophomore year contributed a lot. In the one year after that tournament, I trained hard with the goal of winning while getting lots of advice from my teacher. I was really relieved when I achieved that goal."

After that, he enrolled in Kyoto University (considered one of the most prestigious universities in Japan). He was really living up to the Bunbu Ryodo (accomplished in both sports and education) standard. Unfortunately, while he left a mark in the Japan Intercollegiate Tournament and Universiade, he was not chosen to represent Japan. Japan has many accomplished race walkers, like the world record holder Yusuke Suzuki. Yamanishi was finally chosen to represent Japan in 2019, during his first year of employment at Aichi Steel. He made good use of this chance to solidify his claim to a ticket to the Olympics.

Becoming faster without violating the rules - it's fun figuring out how to do that.

While we have already pointed out how strenuous a sport race walking can be, one of the reasons for its difficulty is rule violations. There are two types of violations. The first is called loss of contact. If both legs leave the ground at the same time, it is a violation.

The other is bent knee. The athlete's leading leg must be straight from the moment the leading foot touches the ground until it passes vertically under the body, or it would be a violation. Judges watch closely and hand out penalties for these violations. Sometimes, they may even get disqualified. Despite that, Yamanishi thinks of this unique race-walking rule as a positive thing instead of a negative.


"Becoming faster without violating the rules - figuring out how to do that is fun. Even when I don't know if it will work, I can make my own assumptions and conduct trial and error to see if it works. That helps me to slowly understand how it works and eventually discover the best way to make it work. Because the rules decrease the freedom of movement, we can continue to focus on optimizing that same movement pattern. I believe the nature of this sport forces us to build on a limited number of strengths, matching perfectly with my personality."

Sometimes, he walks up to 50km in a single day. The Olympics, where he will get the chance to show off the results of his training, is right around the corner. What is on Yamanishi's mind right now?

"I don't really have any image of what I want to become or how I want to be seen. I think of myself simply as a performer who displays his talents to the world. So I am always thinking of delivering a better performance than the last and one of my end goals as an athlete is to touch the hearts of those who watch the expression of my talents.

Of course, it is still a competition as there are contenders, so it is important to remember to put both legs back in the ring and stay competitive. However, keeping both legs on the ground makes it dull. If you're too focused on just winning, it just feels done and empty once you do win. My hope now is to leave one leg in the ring and explore other options with my other leg. There are still many things I can do to improve.

I don't have any particular strengths; I'm not perfect in any one category. So my basic policy is to improve on all fronts. Regarding technique, I am aiming for Yusuke Suzuki's perfect form. His form is sharp and has no unnecessary motions. Eliminating unnecessary motions not only contributes to the beauty of the form but also improves speed. So, it is important to practice more to perfect both my form and speed."

Interviewed and written by Ichiro Suzuki, Photography: Kazufumi Shimoyashiki
First appearance in “Tarzan” No. 809, April 22, 2021