Literally, Naoko Takahashi had bumps in the road in her career as a marathoner. But her days of glory and agony are finally over, and now she can walk in the street as everyone else.
Takahashi, arguably the most beloved marathon star that Japan has ever produced, announced her retirement from the sport on Tuesday.
“As of today, I’ve decided to retire,” said the 36-year-old Takahashi, an Olympic gold medalist and former world record-holder, at a Tokyo news conference before hundreds of reporters, photographers and TV cameras.
“Mentally and physically, I can’t run any more as I once could.”
Despite this being the day for her to formally admit she can no longer compete as a pro athlete, Takahashi, nicknamed “Q-chan,” never lost her smile throughout the occasion.
“Since I started track when I was in junior high, I was fortunate to go to Olympics and blessed with a lot of experiences,” she said. “All those things passed by like typhoons along with my worries. So thinking back, the typhoons are gone and only refreshing wind is blowing now.”
Takahashi said that she reached the decision in early October after a couple of months of distress while training in Bolder, Colo.
While many speculated that she might retire earlier, Takahashi declined to hang up her shoes after failing to be chosen for this summer’s Beijing Olympics. She placed a career-worst 27th and a time of 2 hours, 44 minutes, 18 seconds in March’s Nagoya International Women’s Marathon.
Instead, she resumed her training in Bolder in June, seeking unprecedented participation in three major women’s races — November’s Tokyo International Women’s Marathon, January’s Osaka International Women’s Marathon and March’s Nagoya race — over the next several months.
But she started struggling to convince herself in her training and had to abandon the new objective, and in the end she gave up her career as a professional runner.
“In March’s Nagoya (race), I wasn’t able to perform as I wanted to, and failed to go to the Olympics, which I’d been imagining,” Takahashi said. “Yet I’d been training to make the three straight tournaments and it’d be my last challenge.
“However, from around August I started to have some jitters thinking, ‘I can’t be like this; I can’t stay like this.’ And then I thought I couldn’t perform as ‘professional runner Takahashi’ any more and came to the conclusion that I should retire.”
Takahashi, who grabbed national attention by becoming the first Japanese to capture an Olympic marathon gold medal in 2:23:14 at the 2000 Sydney Games, has been seeking a revival on the center stage after undergoing surgery on a damaged meniscus on her right knee in August 2007 in the United States.
In Sydney, Takahashi made a dramatic spurt at the 34-km mark, throwing her sunglasses to the sidewalk, leaving Romania’s Lidia Simon behind, and crossing the finish line with a glorious triumph.
Takahashi was given a People’s Honor Award for the achievement from then-Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori (she is the last winner of it).
Mizuki Noguchi followed with a gold medal performance in the 2004 Athens Games.
Takahashi shone as a top runner in her second race at the Nagoya International Women’s Marathon in 1998. Takahashi, who had finished seventh a year before in her debut marathon, won it with a then-Japanese record of 2:25.48.
With the success in Nagoya, she entered her prime, winning five more races in a row, including the Sydney Games and became a national heroine.
The Gifu native didn’t just make Japanese track history, but also etched her name into the world marathon book.
In the 2001 Berlin Marathon, Takahashi clocked a then-world record of 2:19.46, cutting almost a minute off the old record, which was set by Kenya’s Tegla Loroupe. She was also the first female marathoner to break the 2:20 mark, too.
A year later, she won another race in Berlin for her sixth straight victory.
After the win, her career was plagued by battles with injuries and failures in training.
Takahashi unexpectedly finished second after rapidly slowing down late in the latter stages of the 2003 Tokyo International Women’s Marathon.
She also failed to qualify for the 2004 Athens Games, because she broke her right ankle during her training in Bolder and couldn’t compete in any races that season.
“Every race of mine was impressive to me,” said Takahashi, responding to a question about which of her races was most unforgettable.
“I went to international races such as the Asian Games, Olympics and Berlin and was able to have big outcomes. The Tokyo International was big for me as well because it was the first race since we made our own team, ‘Team Q.’
“But if you asked me which was the race that became a turning point for me, I’d say the Nagoya International of my second year (as a marathoner), because if I hadn’t had a certain result, I would’ve quit there.”
Takahashi doesn’t quite know what to do next, but she hopes to get involved in activities to give back to the sport that made her a national heroine.
“I was given big cheers through this sport,” said Takahashi, who left the news conference with mixed emotions — smiles and tears. “Now I’d like to convey the joy of it to many people, including of the younger generation — although it is a vague idea.”