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Focused Tamesue follows his own path in search of Olympic glory

by Ed Odeven

I have a confession to make, and it won’t send an electric shock through your nervous system, nor will it instantly give you a Don King hairdo.

OK, ready?

True individualists are incredibly interesting to me. People that do things their own way, refusing to follow the crowd or rely on trendsetters to help them decide what they like, are the ones I find most intriguing.

Case in point: Dai Tamesue, who happens to be Japan’s top 400-meter hurdler. He competes in one of the most difficult sporting events on earth, and yet he doesn’t have a coach.

Even so, the 169-cm Tamesue has succeeded in a sport dominated by taller men. He picked up a bronze medal in the 400 hurdles in a career-best time of 47.89 seconds at the 2001 IAAF World Athletics Championships in Edmonton, Alberta. Tamesue collected his second bronze at the 2005 World Championships in Paris.

Two weekends ago, Tamesue finished first in the one-lap run-and-jump event, winning it in 49.17 seconds (the Olympic “A” standard is 49.20 seconds) to secure a spot on Japan’s Olympic track team.

For Tamesue, it wasn’t an easy task.

“At the national championships, my speed actually wasn’t very fast,” he said in a recent interview, “but I felt like . . . say, I was alive and my soul was burning.

“I had had pains in the last two weeks before it and started to use the 24 hours of the day usefully. Sure, I struggled, but I felt like I was alive.

“I’d like to burn everything I have at the final of the Beijing Olympics.”

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30, relies on his own instincts and experience to guide him as an athlete. He’ll be competing in his third Olympiad next month in Beijing.

It’s a pleasure to listen to the Hiroshima native speak about his approach to training and the way he analyzes his own performances on the track.

For one thing, his speech isn’t littered with cliches, the staple of daily speech for far too many athletes in their discussions with the press. He speaks his mind and isn’t afraid to reveal his true feelings about his career and what it’s like to be in the spotlight, such as was the case last August at the 2007 IAAF World Championships in Osaka, where he was expected to contend for his third world championships medal.

It didn’t happen.

Tamesue failed to advance past the preliminaries, disappointing himself and thousands of Japanese fans in the process.

Eleven months later, Tamesue admits he learned a valuable lesson in Kansai.

“I was too aware of how the public thinks of me, looking back objectively,” he says now. “Essentially, you should be removed from that kind of thing if you want to go to an extreme. I think about entertaining too much. But this year (I feel different) . . . I’ve been doing this for almost 20 years and I’d like to know how much I’ve developed.

“I still feel like there is room for me to improve and I haven’t reached my limit yet.”

The top tier of athletes — superstars like golfer Tiger Woods, tennis maestro Rafael Nadal, NFL quarterback Peyton Manning and double Olympic gold medal breaststroke swimmer Kosuke Kitajima — help Tamesue keep his accomplishments in perspective.

“There are guys like Kitajima, who is on the verge of getting a gold medal all the time,” Tamesue says, “and there are those that perform at a high level internationally. I want to be like that.”

Not surprisingly, hammer thrower Koji Murofushi, Tamesue’s longtime teammate, is another fellow Tamesue considers an ideal role model.

After a press conference attended by approximately 200 reporters on June 30 at a Kawasaki hotel, I asked Tamesue if 14-time national champion Murofushi gives him inspiration to strive for excellence in his specialty event, especially at a time when both were plagued by injuries and their chances of making the Olympic team were probable at best.

Tamesue responded by saying, “He was hurt at the same time (as me), but he wasn’t moved at all and focused on the national championships. And he showed an 80-meter throw, which was great. I think it is important there is a ‘sure guy’ that can have a firm outcome, or there is a guy that isn’t moved easily.

“I think it is huge for this Japanese team to have such a guy and I will be encouraged by him.”

Few athletes I’ve ever met can break down the most minuscule details of their craft as well as Tamesue can. His understanding of doing what it takes to excel could be bulletin board material for any up-and-coming track and field athlete.

To wit: he pinpoints why he struggled in a recent race.

“What I feel I can rely on is this feeling,” he reveals, “which is, at the warmup before the final, I felt like I could run as if my lower back was sticking to the ground. I feel like I may be able to run so much better if I pursue this feeling.

“While I’ve been working on sprints, I was trying to look up at the hurdles with my eyes. But once I put my eyes down a bit, I was actually able to leap easier.”

In retrospect, though, Tamesue pinpoints other forces — he refers to it as his “invisible spiritual power” — as playing a role in his athletic success.

“If I go only with my actual ability, I think I can barely make it to the final,” he says, looking back at the aforementioned 2008 nationals.

He goes on to say he’s studied the Zen teachings of the late Daisetsu Suzuki. These teachings have helped him in much the way a coach would.

“I’ve done Zen sitting down but didn’t figure out the meaning,” he admits. “But I can understand the Zen while running and getting the feeling of doing something without thinking.

“If I can exhibit it in Beijing, I’d like to run that way. For a final of an Olympics, you’ll automatically get tense and feel so much pressure, and a human being can feel something extraordinary when being watched by so many people.”

“When a miracle happens, I can anticipate it a bit,” he concludes, detailing the feeling he got in previous medal-winning races.

“But afterward, I can’t explain it. I can only say, ‘It happened that way at the time for some reason.’ But now, my performance at the national championships was like a miracle and I think once more it may happen (in Beijing).”

Staff writer Kaz Nagatsuka contributed to this article.