Minagawa stays upbeat despite season-ending knee injury

by Kaz Nagatsuka

He goes into the dining room, glances at the names of various dishes on the menu and selects one meal without hesitation.

News photoKentaro Minagawa , a three-time Olimpian, is working out at the Japan Institute ou Sports Sciences in north Tokyo, recovering from knee surgery.
KAZ NAGATSUKA PHOTO

That tiny thing proves what kind of person and athlete Kentaro Minagawa is.

“I didn’t notice that myself,” Minagawa says with a laugh.

And even if the meal he took wasn’t actually his taste, he would not have regretted and tried to think what he should have next time.

In all, Minagawa is a very positive man with massive confidence, determination and decision-making sense, and never looks back but looks ahead.

Those are important elements that make him one of the world’s top and popular slalom skiers.

The 29-year-old Minagawa, however, can’t prove it right away. He suffered a torn ligament on his right knee during a training session last December in Austria.

With the heavy injury, he wasted the 2006-07 season. But Minagawa wasn’t disappointed. Not at all.

“I wasn’t depressed for a second,” says Minagawa, who had gone through the same injury on his left knee in 2002, following the Salt Lake City Olympics. “When I did it for the first time, I couldn’t be like this because I wasn’t sure if I would’ve been able to come back and how long it would’ve taken.

“But because I had the four years (between the first and second injuries), I felt like I just had a sprain or something and a year of rehabbing would be like a month or so. So I wasn’t that disappointed.”

Minagawa says that the second injury was different from the first one, but it wasn’t painful.

A Yuzawa, Niigata Prefecture native, Minagawa has been a three-time Olympian — at the 1998 Nagano Games, 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics and 2006 Turin Winter Olympiad — and has been known as one of the best Japanese alpine skiers of all time.

What made him more notable was his performance in last year’s Turin Games, where he missed a medal finish by just 0.03 seconds in the men’s slalom.

Along with Naoki Yuasa, who was seventh in the event, it was the first time for a Japanese alpine skier to finish in the top eight in an Olympic since Chiharu Igaya, who won the silver in the 1956 Winter Games in Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy.

The positive Minagawa, however, didn’t brood about missing a medal. He thought it was the way it would happen and there was nothing he could do about it but accept it.

“If I had pushed aggressively and got off (the course), there wouldn’t have been me whom I am right now,” says Minagawa, who became the fourth Japanese skier to gain a first-seed spot in a World Cup circuit as he had several top-10 finishes in 2001. “I believe no matter what the result was, it would just be a passing point. If you don’t finish, you don’t get a result. So in that respect, I think I did well (in Turin).”

Minagawa, who had a surgery on Jan. 4, has been working on his rehab and training, mainly at the Japan Institute of Sports Sciences in north Tokyo since the beginning of February. His recovery is going quicker than expected, and in his own words, his workouts are now “more of a training rather than rehabbing.”

But Minagawa is not necessarily in a rush to make a comeback to the snowy mountain, because sooner or later he knows he can win a race.

So Minagawa wasn’t really shocked when he tore a ligament again last December.

Part of the reason is that the Vancouver Olympics is still three years away, but rather than that, what makes him laid back is the confidence that he has obtained from the past experiences.

“I was shocked by the previous (injury),” Minagawa says, “but this time I’m not because I could clearly envision that I can win. So I just felt like I wasted a little time and I can’t achieve it this season.”

After the first torn ligament, Minagawa declared that he would quit the sport if he did it again. And four years later, he did it, and he is still in the race as a competitor. His elaborate skills and desire to achieve what he has yet to do — winning an Olympic gold medal — made him change his mind about retirement.

“I was saying I wouldn’t be continuing if I suffered a serious injury like that. But you can’t really give it up if a carrot is being hung in front of your nose (a Japanese metaphoric expression, which means to encourage someone by showing a reward after a job or something),” Minagawa says with a grin.

Obviously, what makes him remain in the sport is the confidence in him. But it’s not overconfidence. He had thrown it away when he suffered the first torn ligament.

“Until the time, I had never experienced a major setback or frustration in my life,” Minagawa says. “But right before the Salt Lake City Olympics I got injured in my ankle, the momentum changed from then on, and I tore the ligament right after the Olympics. . . I thought I had to pay for my arrogance.”

The man we see now is a genuine Kentaro Minagawa. He said he used to create an ideal figure of himself, trying to live up to the expectations of people and even himself. He no longer thinks that way.

On his second run of the men’s slalom at Turin, Minagawa’s buckle came off right after the start by accident. He managed to fit it back in place and finish the run, and slightly missed the podium.

Yet words such as “would’ve,” “should’ve” or “could’ve” were never heard out of his mouth. To him, talking about the past and suppositions mean nothing.

“It was what it was,” Minagawa says. “Sure it affected my performance. But you know, it should pay off next (at the 2010 Vancouver Games). If I do well in the next (Olympics), I’ll be able to possess a story that people barely can have, and I’ll be convinced myself, thinking my life is blessed. It might’ve been wasteful, but what I really want is a gold medal, not a bronze medal.”

Now Minagawa looks at the drink menu. And needless to say, it doesn’t take long for him to decide what to have.