Race walker Takayuki Tanii, who captured a bronze medal in the men’s 50-km competition at this summer’s IAAF World Championships in Beijing, was named the athlete of the year at the annual Athletic Awards of the Japan Association of Athletics Federations in Tokyo on Wednesday.

Marathoner Mai Ito, race walkers Yusuke Suzuki and Hirooki Arai and the men’s 4×100 relay members (Kazuma Oseto, Kenji Fujimitsu, Yoshihide Kiryu and Kotaro Taniguchi) for the World Relays in Bahamas were also honored.

High school sensation Abdul Hakim Sani Brown and female javelin thrower Haruka Kitaguchi were selected as the best young athletes.

“Just thinking back where I was a few years ago, there was no way that I could think of winning something like this because I’d had a lot of struggles and injuries,” said Tanii, who delivered the only podium finish for Team Japan during the World Championships in China with a time of 3 hours, 42 minutes, 55 seconds. “But I’ve patiently trained myself and now I’ve earned this. I’m extremely happy.”

Tanii, 32, said he would definitely shoot for winning the gold medal in next year’s Rio Olympics, using his accomplishment this year as a steppingstone.

“I won the bronze medal, but that means there are still two men ahead of me, and there are more people who have better records than me,” Tanii said. “So I’ve got to make it just a checkpoint in order to ultimately win (the gold medal).”

This year wound up being the season for the race walking, as Suzuki set the 20-km world record in March in Ishikawa Prefecture, while Tanii and Arai finished third and fourth at worlds in August.

Tanii was pleased to see his sport earn much more attention than ever, saying, “this is something we could not have imagined a few years ago.” He added that Japan’s top-level walkers have worked hard, setting their goals at prevailing on the global stage.

“Hopefully, we’ll be able to advertise more that Japan can compete at the world level in this sport,” said Tanii, who won the outstanding award in 2014 for earning the gold medal in the Asian Games in South Korea.

Meanwhile, the country also saw some eye-catching performance from its sprinters as well.

In March, Kiryu clocked a wind-aided 9.87 seconds in a 100-meter race in Texas, and Sani Brown won a pair of gold medals in the 100 and 200 at the World Junior Championships. The 16-year-old Sani Brown also competed at the World Championships, advancing to the semifinal round in the 200.

“I had better outcomes that I’d anticipated this year, but it was very good experience for my track career,” said Sani Brown, who was honored with the Rising Star Award by the IAAF last month. “(But) I’m not going to be satisfied with it and will do the best I can so I will win better awards next year.”

Sani Brown took the spotlight as a sprinter, but Kiryu, who missed the world championships because of an injury, is determined to have a better year in 2016 and has set his sights on becoming the first Japanese to break the 10-second barrier in the 100.

“That’s somewhere no one has reached and I want to be the first one to get there,” said Kiryu, who turned 20 years old on Tuesday. “I’ve kept saying so in the last three years, and no matter what others say about it, competing on the world stage is my goal.”

Elsewhere, two-time Olympic marathon medalist Yuko Arimori and 105-year-old athlete Hidekichi Miyazaki were the recipients of special awards.

Arimori, who won the silver medal at the Barcelona Olympics and bronze in the Atlanta Games, was honored for her contributions to society through sports both in and outside of Japan. Miyazaki set the world records in the 100 and shot put for the age class between 105 and 109 in September.

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