YOKOHAMA - Two years ago, Yuko Takahashi moved to San Diego to join an elite multinational triathlon team, seeking to become a legitimate athlete.
Her decision has paid off.
The 28-year-old came up with her best result ever in the World Triathlon Series circuit, finishing finished fourth in Saturday’s women’s elite competition in Yokohama.
“I was able to establish good momentum with my teammates from early on,” Takahashi said after the competition at the finish line in Yamashita Park. “We were able to form a pack with fewer athletes, which I thought was ideal, and put it together with the running portion.”
Takahashi, who has been part of the Triathlon Squad since 2017, said that in both the 40-km biking and 10-km running portions, she received some help from her teammates. In fact, in the final running portion, an admitted weakness of Takahashi’s, she kept pace with teammate Taylor Spivey.
The Tokyo native, who placed seventh the 1.5-km swimming portion of the triathlon, credited Spivey for navigating her through the finale.
“She helped me have a good pace,” said Takahashi, who finished in 1 hour, 53 minutes and 38 seconds. “Without it, I don’t think I could put up the performance I had.”
Takahashi knows she has a long way to go before she can legitimately contend for a medal at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Americans occupied the podium at the Yokohama meet.
“I think I gave everything I have for now,” said Takahashi, who is 15th in the latest International Triathlon Union world rankings. “But I still need to improve my overall performance. I kept up with Taylor but she has a better sprinting ability, which I don’t, and I wasn’t good enough to finish on the podium yet.”
Takahashi gained confidence and motivation for the 2020 Games with her solid result in Yokohama .
“There were crowds of people that cheered us on,” said Takahashi, who won gold at last year’s Asian Games. “It made me realize how fun it would be to be able to compete at (Tokyo 2020) and that the (home crowd) support gives you energy.
“The Olympics are a special stage, and I would like to keep working hard toward it.”
Japan will receive two automatic host spots each in the men’s and women’s individual competitions for the Olympics. The nation may add one more spot each if it has three or more athletes placed within the top 30 in Olympics qualification rankings. Currently, Takahashi (11th) is the only Japanese on the list.
The qualification period runs from May 11, 2019, to May 11, 2020.
Veteran triathlete Ai Ueda is seeking her fourth consecutive Olympic berth, although the path to it appears to be an uphill climb.
The 36-year-old suffered a subarachnoid hemorrhage (a rare type of stroke), spleen rupture and aerothorax when she collided with another athlete and fell off from her bicycle during the mixed relay competition at the World Series meet in Abu Dhabi in early March. She had another subarachnoid hemorrhage in 2010.
In Yokohama, Ueda exited the water last among elite female triathletes and was disqualified after she was lapped during the biking portion. For Ueda, it was her second consecutive series meet that ended that way.
Ueda surprised many by quickly returning to training after surgeries for her severe injuries. She held a high-altitude training session a month after the incident. She remains positive that the setback will give her a chance to be a better athlete.
“Whether it’s good or bad, with the goal of winning a medal at the (Tokyo) Olympics in mind, I have a mindset that lets me think that anything that happens to me will only benefit me,” Ueda, a two-time medalist at the Yokohama meet, said with a smile.
Ueda admitted that she has not been able to move some parts of her body properly because of the injuries. But she thinks she might be able to find new training methods to compensate.
The Kyoto Prefecture native, who finished 17th at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, insisted that she had no plans to stop competing, saying that there is “a great significance” in her decision to continue challenging in competitions.
“I don’t want to show people what I did today. And people might say I should come back after I’m completely healed,” said Ueda, who grabbed gold at February’s World Cup meet in Cape Town. “But I would like to know where I am (as an athlete) and want people to support me by watching me overcome this adversity.”
Ueda is set to compete at the World Triathlon Series meet in Leeds, England, next month.
Meanwhile, Toshiyuki Nakayama, the leader of Japan’s national team, insisted that there is a pressing urgency to develop the team’s male athletes.
While five Japanese female athletes competed in Yokohama, only two men took part because there were not enough eligible athletes. In Saturday’s men’s competition, Kenji Nener, who has a Japanese mother and Australian father, was 33rd, while Takumi Hojo finished 38th.
Nakayama hinted that the national team would concentrate on developing the two rather than casting a wider net in order to give Japan a more realistic chance of earning a medal in the mixed relay at the Olympics.
Elsewhere, the Yokohama event provided a valuable opportunity for athletes from other countries, although they were spared the high temperatures and humidity expected in the capital during the Olympics.
American Katie Zaferes, who with her win on Saturday has three straight victories in the series this year, said that it was good to be able to “get ready” for the Olympics by racing in a similar environment held in the same country.
Zaferes added that the support from Japanese officials and fans has made her feel comfortable for competition here. She said this comfort level has made things “way more manageable” for non-Japanese athletes so they can “perform to the best because you are not overwhelmed by other things.”
A test triathlon event for Tokyo 2020, scheduled for mid-August, will also serve as a Japanese trial for the games.