Table tennis star Mima Ito was disappointed by the postponement of the Tokyo Olympics, due to the COVID-19 outbreak, because it took away the chance to reach her goal of winning a gold medal as a teenager.
Other than that, Ito, who will turn 20 on Oct. 21, is fine with the decision. In fact, she believes it gives her more time to become a better player and get closer to her goal of standing atop the podium at the Summer Games.
Winning as a 20-year-old also comes with its own perks, because she'd be able to celebrate as an adult.
"If the Olympics had been held this year, I would still be in my teens while (many other athletes) are over 20, which would make it a little special for me," Ito said in an online interview on Thursday.
She added that she would “be able to toast (with alcohol) right after” her triumph.
Ito was a bronze medalist in the women's team competition at the Rio Games four years ago. As for next year, on home soil, she's only thinking about the highest spot on the podium. That's the goal she's set for each event she'll compete in — singles, mixed doubles and team — at the Tokyo Games.
Of the three, her toughest challenge will arguably come in the singles competition.
Ito is currently No. 2 in the International Table Tennis Federation women's singles rankings, up one spot from the previous month. It's highest ranking for a Japanese player, male or female, under the current system.
China’s Chen Meng, who has been atop in the rankings since June of last year, is the player to beat right now and stands to be one of the biggest obstacles Ito might have to overcome to win gold next summer.
"While happy to have been ranked at No. 2 in the world for the first time, I've never beaten Chen Meng," said Ito, who is the only non-Chinese woman ranked in top seven. "So there's a player above me who I've never beaten. That motivates me. There might still be a gap between us in terms of points (Chen has 17,915 rankings points to Ito's 15,440) and ability. But I want to keep closing it. If I beat her, I know I have a chance to be No. 1 in the world rankings. So I want to do the best I can."
Ito feels one of the major reasons why Chen has fared so well in their meetings is that the Chinese player and her coaches have done a great job of scouting her. That said, Ito is eager to return to competition so she can get accustomed to Chen's game as well.
She will have to wait, however, as the ITTF has announced all its events have been canceled through at least the end of July.
Just like other athletes, Ito hasn't been able to practice or train as normal during the pandemic. But Ito, a three-time silver medalist at the world championships, feels she has coped with the situation fairly well and maintained a positive mind set.
“There’s still the Olympics next year," Ito said of her bright outlook. "We know there's that a year from now. I want to increase my chances to win. I take this situation positively.”
While singles may be the toughest challenge, Ito's best shot at gold is probably in mixed doubles, which will make its Olympic debut in Tokyo. The Iwata, Shizuoka Prefecture, native said the coronavirus situation has prevented her from practicing, or even communicating, with her partner, Jun Mizutani.
She doesn't, however, see it as too big of a problem.
"We can probably do it without (practicing)," she said with a laugh. “Even when we compete in tournaments, we don’t practice at all (beforehand). We practice together for 20, 30 minutes before the match.
So I really don’t have too many worries about the mixed doubles.”
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