Japan sprinting star Ryota Yamagata has faced stumbling blocks over the last couple of years, with a series of injuries keeping him out of most competitions.

But the 28-year-old, who experienced a collapsed lung in 2019 and knee injuries last year, is trying to make the 2021 season “an extremely great year.”

One key factor is obviously the Tokyo Olympics set for this summer. But before focusing on the games, Yamagata will need to work to reach peak performance by trying to earn a spot on the national squad.

The 2018 season was perhaps one of the best years in Yamagata’s career. He captured bronze in the men’s 100, tying his personal best of 10 seconds at the Asian Games in Jakarta and earning gold at the national championships, going undefeated against his compatriots all year.

Yamagata’s 10-second-flat mark ties for fourth along with Koji Ito on Japan’s all-time list behind Abdul Hakim Sani Brown (9.97), Yoshihide Kiryu (9.98) and Yuki Koike (9.98).

So a return to his 2018 form may have offered a quick route back to gaining confidence and a safer path to earning a berth for the Olympics.

But Yamagata has declined to go down that road, saying he is simply not the same person he was in 2018 and wants to evolve his skills while trying new training methods, which he has been working on since recovering from his injuries over this past winter.

Yamagata admitted that he once did try to adopt his old training methods, but he quickly realized that this was a dead end.

Sprinter Ryota Yamagata speaks to reporters during an online news conference Monday. | SEIKO HOLDINGS CORP.
Sprinter Ryota Yamagata speaks to reporters during an online news conference Monday. | SEIKO HOLDINGS CORP.

“I thought that I wasn’t going to run faster than the personal best that I have,” Yamagata told reporters during an online news conference Monday.

Yamagata has not necessarily altered his training methods in a drastic fashion. He has only made small adjustments to minute things such as his posture while running and methods when lifting weights, among other things.

And beyond that, he’s embarked a completely new challenge: voice training.

At first glance, that may appear to have no connection to sprinting. Yet the Hiroshima native is serious about the training and believes that it can help his performance on the track.

Yamagata revealed that he experienced mental stress while not being able to practice sufficiently due to the injuries and that this affected his sleep. He said he started voice training to promote the operation of his autonomic nerve by improving his breathing.

He intends to continue the three-hour, weekly voice lessons even as he resumes competition this year.

Re-evaluating training overall has been key, Yamagata said.

“Every time I got hurt, I thought of it,” he said when asked if his latest rest period gave him a chance to reconsider his training and the draw of the 100-meter dash. “This is a discipline where things don’t work when you think they do work.

"When it comes down to training, you always have to re-examine your methods. And through all those experiences that I’ve accumulated during my career, I’ve found it fascinating to compete in the 100 because it is profound. It is simple, but tiny things can make bigger differences in the end.”

Needless to say, his biggest focus is to make the national team for this summer’s Tokyo Olympics.

The two-time Olympian has not come up with an Olympic qualification mark, which is 10.05.

The top three finishers at June’s national championships in Osaka with the qualification mark will advance to the Olympics.

Yamagata, who belongs to Seiko Holdings Corp., made his 2021 debut indoors in late February and then ran his first outdoor race in Miyazaki on Sunday, claiming second with a 10.36 finish, 0.01 behind rival Aska Cambridge.

The battle for the three spots is arguably the harshest to date, with the candidate roster being as deep as ever in Japan’s 100-meter history.

“The spots are obviously limited and you have to compete against your rivals who are formidable, and I don’t think you can get one easily,” said Yamagata, who was part of the silver medal-winning 4×100 relay team at the 2016 Rio Olympics. “It's made me pull my socks up and makes me feel that I’ve got to work harder.”

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