Is there anything more compelling in sports than a once great champion, who has been written off by just about everybody, recapturing their former glory in dramatic fashion?
That is what fans of 2000 Olympic marathon gold medalist Naoko Takahashi were treated to Nov. 20, when she shook off the rust of nearly two years on the sidelines with leg injuries and won the Tokyo International Women’s marathon by 36 seconds.
Running alone for the final 7 km (4.2 miles) after surging away from Ethiopia’s Elfenesh Alemu and Lithuania’s Zivile Balciunaite, the 33-year-old Takahashi turned back the clock to that sunny day in Sydney when she became the first Japanese female ever to win an Olympic gold in track and field.
With her victory in a time of 2:24:39, she also exorcised the demons of the very same race in 2003, when she was passed by Alemu with just 3 km (1.8 miles) left and finished second with a disappointing time of 2:27:21, resulting in the controversial decision by the Japan Association of Athletics Federation to leave her off the 2004 Olympic team.
What was even more impressive was how she did it — with a significant injury to her right calf that required heavy taping. Having hurt herself on a training run just a week before the race, doctors advised her to pull out and not risk further injury.
But she didn’t, and showed once again what an Olympic champion is made of. Running injured, and now two years older, she won and shaved nearly three minutes off the time she recorded on that calamitous day 24 months ago.
Certainly she wanted to compete and try and get her athletic career restarted, but I think there was much more to her motivation.
Takahashi has a reputation in sporting circles for being an honest, straightforward person and a class individual. The Gifu native knew how many people were counting on her to compete in this event.
Race organizers, her sponsors and members of her “Team Q” training group had a lot at stake, and she didn’t want to let them down.
Takahashi’s popularity is an amazing phenomenon. Despite being out of the spotlight for an extended period, she stepped back in and immediately rekindled the nation’s fascination with her.
With Ichiro Suzuki and Hideki Matsui plying their trades overseas, it is not a stretch to say that Takahashi is the nation’s biggest sporting personality.
Her smile is charming, but I think it’s her guts that her countrymen admire most. The ability to do something that no one has before, and do it with style.
She did it on the grandest stage in all of sports in Australia, and again in 2001, when she won the Berlin Marathon, becoming the first woman to run a marathon under 2 hours and 20 minutes.
Takahashi’s all-time record in marathons is nothing short of spectacular. Eight races, seven victories, one second-place finish.
I was impressed that her longtime coach Yoshio Koide, whom she split with earlier this year, was on hand at Tokyo’s National Stadium and celebrated when Takahashi crossed the finish line first.
He didn’t have to be there, but the fact that he was tells you what a special person and athlete Takahashi is.
Following the race, Koide put his top prodigy’s most recent success in perspective.
“I didn’t have any doubt that she would have a good result. Our parting helped her mature.”
In typical fashion, Takahashi tried to deflect the attention from herself and share the glory of her latest achievement.
“This race was very critical for me. I felt like my team was pushing my back to help me finish the race. I have been struggling for the past couple of years, but during that time I felt everyone’s warm heart. This is a great step forward to a higher level.”
Takahashi even said that her team discussed whether or not to disclose prior to the race that she was injured.
“We knew if we revealed this information it would let my competitors know I had a weakness.”
However, the announcement was made, causing concern for her health and future.
“It was the right thing to do for the public,” Takahashi graciously said.
It was clear that, despite what looked like an effortless performance, she had a significant amount of discomfort to overcome on the way to victory.
“Winning the race was more important than the time. I can’t say that I didn’t feel pain. I just kept praying my legs would hold up.”
Takahashi acknowledged that the past two years have been very difficult for her.
“I realized how important it is to hold on to the dream. I was in a dark place, but my dream helped me spend very fruitful days.”
It is apparent that her battle to overcome injuries and the separation from her coach have helped Takahashi to grow spiritually.
She is hoping to represent Japan in Beijing at the 2008 Olympics, when she will be 36, but whether she does or not, she has empowered herself for the real marathon ahead — the rest of her life.