Most Olympians have to be singularly focused on a specific goal in their pursuit of excellence, but Naoko Ishihara’s life outside the sporting realm gives her perspective available to few others.
The 45-year-old shooter, who has all but booked her spot at this year’s Tokyo Games, has chosen a career path that allows her to chase both spiritual and athletic nirvana, yet her life as a Shinto priest is one that appears incongruent with her Olympic aspirations.
When she is not at a shooting range with a shotgun in hand, Ishihara maintains an altogether much more serene life in which she tends to gardens, repairs architecture, shovels snow and ensures she meets all the responsibilities of a gonnegi junior priest.
In sport and in life, “faith can be a source (of motivation),” Ishihara says.
The distinguished Furumine Shrine in Tochigi Prefecture, with its history of over 1,300 years dedicated to legendary creatures called tengu, is an optimal environment in which to prepare for her second Olympics, she says.
“Shooting is a cerebral sport. It all comes down to how well you control your focus in moments that matter. I have more faith than most people. I’m hoping that my faith in my own shooting ability will lead to positive results.”
The daughter of Keishi Ishihara, an 84th-generation chief priest, Naoko gets her genes and unwavering support from her father, who twice qualified for the Olympics in clay shooting but failed to appear on both occasions because of unfortunate twists of fate.
He missed out on the 1968 Mexico City Games due to a scandal involving the Japan shooting association, and Japan’s boycott of the Moscow Olympics kept him out of the 1980 Games.
“My long-cherished wish will come true if she wins a medal,” Keishi, 76, says.
Naoko is a late-blooming Olympian. She got started in competitive shooting in her 30s after graduating from a Japanese university with a Shinto priest license then enrolling in a study abroad program at Anglia Ruskin University in England.
Shooting has always held a special place in her heart as she grew up close to a shooting range built by the shrine in the Meiji Era (1868-1912). The ringing out of gunshots has been a constant in her life.
“The more you practice, the better you become,” says Naoko, a skeet shooter, and that’s why she enjoys her sport.
The competitive Olympic clay shooting disciplines can be grouped under skeet, trap and sporting clays, with athletes racking up scores by exploding targets with their shotguns.
The Tokyo Games will feature three mixed-gender team events, one each in air rifle, pistol and shotgun.
In skeet shooting, the targets are thrown in singles and doubles from two trap houses situated 40 meters apart, at opposite ends of a semicircular arc on which there are a number of shooting positions.
In 2016, Naoko became the first woman to represent Japan in skeet shooting at an Olympics.
But she finished 18th in her Olympic debut in Rio de Janeiro, citing the overwhelming pressure of a large crowd and extraordinary atmosphere as the reasons for her disappointing result.
Having earned a second chance, she is hoping things will be different this time around, despite the obvious added pressure of shooting in front of a home crowd.
Naoko says this will be her last Olympics. She sees a future for herself in the shrine she was born into, and intends to succeed her father as the chief priest one day.
Winning a shiny medal to add to the collection of 200 tengu masks on display at the Furumine Shrine may prove a difficult task, but Naoko has faith.
“An Olympic medal isn’t an impossible dream if I get a boost from the cheering home crowd and I’m able to perform to the best of my ability,” she said.
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