He’s got the looks, he’s got the dress — from baggy jeans to a pierced nose — but the one thing that makes him different from the rest of the teenagers that walk down the streets of Shibuya is his talent on the slopes.
With his dazzling performances, teen snowboarder Takaharu Nakai had the crowd on their feet when he participated in the snowboarding half-pipe competition at the Salt Lake Winter Olympic Games last February. Standing only 165 cm tall, the miniscule athlete’s dynamic and thrilling tricks drove the local crowd to boo when he finished in fifth-place.
Youths that enjoy the same sport today respect and admire pro boarders like Nakai not just for their talent, but also view them as fashion role models.
But with snowboarding becoming more and more popular, not just as a sport but almost an individual culture for the young snowboarding crowd, Nakai remains indifferent to the hype surrounding him.
“I’ve never regarded (myself) that way, as some idol of the snowboarding world or anything like that really,” Nakai said. “For me, snowboarding is something I just enjoy doing, and if I can enjoy it . . . that’s good enough for me.”
Already a pro at 18, Nakai only began snowboarding eight years ago when his friend happened to take him along to the slopes.
“It was just real fun, I dug it right off the bat,” Nakai said. “After that I got a board for myself from my parents, and I seriously got into it.”
It was only school that prevented little Nakai from going out snowboarding every day. A few years later, the sport became a massive hit, and eventually snowboarders were everywhere on the slopes.
But it didn’t take long before Nakai outclassed all these snowboarders — and he claims he didn’t even break a sweat.
“I just had a good time, and had fun with my friends, and I never felt I had a tough time getting here,” he said. “Well, it wasn’t always just fun, like at times I’d go to competitions and when I did badly I sometimes thought I didn’t want to compete anymore, but overall I didn’t feel it was difficult improving.”
The teenager was pretty cool about the Games, too. Until he actually entered Salt Lake where he experienced something “unlike any other tournament” he had participated in before.
“The crowd, the media, frenzy and overall attention the competition received . . . the whole scale of the Games was just stunning — incomparable to anything I’d ever experienced,” he said.
He then went on to stun the crowd himself with an outrageous halfpipe performance. Being the only Japanese to advance to the final of the competition, the Hokkaido native proved he deserved to be there. After finishing his run, Nakai pumped his fists in satisfaction. But his smile soon disappeared after seeing his marks, which earned him fifth place.
“Honestly speaking, right after I finished the run I had expected they would give me a little more,” Nakai said. “At that time I thought my performance was like, a huge body blow.”
The crowd booed in dissatisfaction. Reports claimed even some of the boarders had felt that he deserved better. Nakai left Salt Lake tight-lipped.
But looking back, he humbly recalls he felt he hadn’t reached the level that the rest-of-the-world’s top boarders were at.
“There was all this talk about the (unfair) judging and this and that, but I can honestly say that there was a difference (in level) between my performance and the others, and at that time that (fifth place) was probably as good as I was going to get,” he said.
“Even if they let me judge my performance now, I would give it only a little more than what it originally got, so that would put me in fourth or maybe third place at most, and then I would be on the edge of the podium. I’d rather stand in the middle anyway.”
The cheeky teenager now has some added motivation to come back to the Games — although not promising anything because the long three-year wait could make him change his mind anytime.
“Originally, I used to think, ‘Well, I’ll do it now, and then I won’t really care about it after that. If I do it once that’s fine,’ ” he said. “Now that I had a pretty frustrating experience, I feel I want to do it again. I don’t know if I will feel the same later but right now I do.”
Some snowboarders have said that the Olympics is not on their list of priorities, nor is it even worthy of participating in, as they’re trying to be non-conformist, living outside rules and regulations of the authority.
Nakai believes people are free to do what they want, but he made it clear he doesn’t need these people making fun of him.
“People who want to (go to the Olympics) can put their effort into it, and that’s what I would do too if I wanted to go to the Games, and if there are people that don’t want to do so, I think that’s fine. Everybody has their own ideas,” Nakai said.
“But I know there are people out there who say, ‘Those boarders that want to go to the Olympics are so un-cool,’ and that infuriates me.”
Currently in his first year of university, Nakai — though a professional sportsman — is like any other teen who has hobbies and friends to spend his free time with, practicing his turntable skills and playing mahjong with his mates.
And being a pro doesn’t exempt you from injuries either. From bruises to broken bones he’s experienced it all, but they are not enough to keep the kid from snowboarding again.
“Yeah, there are times I can’t get it right. It makes me angry, but I just be nasty to others and I feel better . . . just kidding,” Nakai said with a smile.
“It is scary, skating again after you once get injured, especially having to do the same trick that you once broke a bone on. I think, ‘What if I break a bone again with that trick, I seriously don’t want that to happen.’
“But at the same time, I also think it would be a real pity if I end up not being able to do it (that trick) again. So I end up doing it anyway, and step by step, I just recover my confidence.”
While the young star has several options to choose among — including his academic life and the next Olympics — one thing is for sure: his love for the sport will not change.
“I don’t know how long I can do it,” he said, “but for as long as I am a snowboarder, it would be ideal to earn a living on doing what I love.”
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