After three years of rigorous training, Nanako Fujita realized her childhood dream at age 18 by becoming a jockey this year.

Fujita is one of the six applicants who passed the Japan Racing Association’s fiscal 2016 test to obtain a jockey license and became its first female rider in 16 years.

“I’ve been waiting for this day ever since I started aspiring to become a jockey in the sixth grade,” Fujita said.

“I discovered there are only a few women in this profession after I became determined to be a jockey, but my desire to ride horses exceeded (any of my concerns),” she said.

Her 55-year-old father Minoru is a company employee and none of her relatives have any association with horse racing, which is rare for Japanese jockeys.

Watching a horse race on TV by chance, “I was impressed to see a human becoming one with a horse,” she said, recalling when she first dreamed of becoming a jockey as an elementary school student.

Fujita, who is from Moriya, Ibaraki Prefecture, joined a youth team at Miho Training Center in the prefecture to receive basic training. She passed a highly competitive test to enter the JRA’s Horse Racing School.

In both elementary and junior high school, she learned martial arts, obtaining the first dan level in karate and the second dan in kendo.

Yet she said the physical training she had at the JRA school was truly demanding and realize the difference in physical strength between men and women.

“The physical workouts were the hardest,” Fujita said, citing one program in which she had to run while shouldering a weight of about 20 kg.

At the JRA, Yukiko Masuzawa and two other women passed the license test in 1996, becoming the first-ever female jockeys. Since Masuzawa retired in 2013, no women had ridden a horse on a JRA race track. Among the total six JRA female riders before Fujita, Masuzawa achieved the largest number of victories with 34.

When Masuzawa debuted two decades ago, horse racing was largely dominated by men. But there are women at the JRA training center today, schooling and taking care of horses.

Overseas, female jockeys are more common. Julie Krone, a retired U.S. female jockey, was inducted into the National Museum of Racing’s Hall of Fame in 2000, becoming the first female inductee.

Among other achievements by female riders, a team of women scored a landmark victory in the 2015 Shergar Cup international horse racing meet at Ascot Racecourse in England.

Fujita cited Lisa Allpress, a New Zealand rider who won that country’s jockey premiership in 2012 and is leading in this year’s rankings, as one of the female jockeys she respects.

“I want to learn from her stoic attitude toward horse racing,” Fujita said.

She said female jockeys may have disadvantages, but added, “My biggest appeal is to always stay cheerful and keep smiling.

“I’m hoping to grow to be a jockey who will be trusted and loved by many people,” Fujita commented.

Fujita made her debut on Thursday, Hina Matsuri, riding in six races at the Kawasaki Racecourse near Tokyo and coming in second as the best finish among them.

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