On the last day of the three-day public holiday in July, I headed for the swim meet venue feeling pleasantly tense. The purpose of my journey was to take part in the Japan Masters Swimming Championships, a national swim meet held annually during the three-day holiday centering on Marine Day. Marine Day itself fell on the fourth day of the competition, when the 200 m individual medley, the event I was to enter, was scheduled. Each year, I also take part in the last event of the last day of the championships.
This year’s Japan Masters took place at Nippon Gaishi Hall in Nagoya City. I headed for Kasadera Station, taking the Tokaido Main Line from Kanayama Station. The meet’s main venue used to be the Tokyo-Tatsumi International Swimming Complex, which was damaged in the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake. For the last three years, the meet has been held at venues outside Tokyo. Osaka hosted it in 2011, Chiba in 2012. It’s Nagoya’s turn this year.
Japan Masters is the swimming equivalent of the Koshien tournaments in high school baseball－winning at this meet means everything to swimmers, and winning at other competitions does not come anywhere close in terms of gratification. The event is that serious. This year’s Masters had special significance for me. It was my 10th consecutive Masters tournament, which entitled me to a special medal awarded to those who have competed for 10 years in a row.
I should explain here why I take part in the Masters meet, and why I have done so for the past 10 years.
Up until I turned 42, swimming was simply a means of staying fit. However, the vague objective of staying fit failed to give me a clear idea of how far I should go until I reached my goal. I therefore set a more concrete goal. The swimming class my children were attending at the time happened to offer a Masters Swimming program, so I took part. Inspired by fellow swimmers, I made the bold decision to compete in the Japan Masters Swimming Championships. This boosted my enthusiasm for swimming practice, and physical fitness followed as a bonus.
My first attempt at the Masters Championships, however, ended with dismal results. Although my records were unremarkable, the competition was not without fruit: I found out that medals were awarded to those in eighth place or above, and to those who have competed for 10 consecutive years. So the new goal I set after achieving the goal of taking part in the Japan Masters meet, was “winning eighth place.” I also made up my mind to compete for the next 10 years. I started training in earnest. Some time afterwards the swimming club my sons were attending fell prey to land speculation and was bulldozed. Deprived of a swimming club but undeterred, I have diligently commuted to swimming pools all over the place for the past 10 years to train and work toward my goal.
The effort I put in finally resulted in my first medal: I won eighth place after four challenges. In the past nine years, I have managed to secure six medals in a row; I’ve also moved up two age categories since I first took part in the Masters meet. This year’s competition was to be my 10th challenge.
Ten successive years of competing in the meet has clearly improved my physical strength. Subjectively speaking, I am in better physical condition and more vigorous than I was a decade ago when I was about 40. Since last year, I have also been taking part in the swim segment of the triathlon relay, successfully completing the 1,500 m distance. I am as fit as ever.
Lost in memories, I arrived at the Nagoya swim meet venue. I was greeted by a huge signboard bearing the image of super-star swimmer Kosuke Kitajima, a personal friend whom I greatly admire. I took a photo in front of it. Encouraged by the reassuring sight of Mr. Kitajima, I resolved to give my best to the competition.
Inside, the swimming venue had a distinctive atmosphere. I could hear the splashes of swimmers, the air was warm and moist, and the place echoed with cheering and announcements made over the loudspeakers. My tension rose.
I promptly changed into competition swimwear and tested the water in the sub pool. My body felt slightly heavy. I left the pool and chatted with acquaintances while waiting to be called for the 200 m individual medley. Participating in the meet for 10 years naturally gains you more and more acquaintances. I lay down in the waiting area and did a bit of image training, reminding myself to enjoy the swim, use large strokes, and reserve energy for the last half.
The call for my event came, and I sat down in front of the course after bowing to the course referee. I set my eyes on the end of the pool 50 meters ahead. I put on my swim cap and goggles. A whistle was followed by the “Take your mark” command, at which the swimmers crouched. I jumped in at the next whistle. The moment I entered the water, I was struck by a sense of deja vu, which was only natural since I had done this every year for the past decade.
For the butterfly leg, I made sure my movements were large. For the backstroke as well I reminded myself to do large strokes. I started to run short of breath during the latter half of the backstroke leg. For the breaststroke part I took pains to kick smoothly and to make compact arm movements. As in all previous years, my arms started to feel extremely strained halfway through the breaststroke. By the time the race came to the final, freestyle portion, my arms were losing strength, and I kicked with all my might in an effort to make up for it. I was quite breathless when I finished. I removed my goggles to check the electronic scoreboard, and found that my time had improved as much as two seconds from last year. Rejoicing in the outcome, me and the swimmer in the next lane congratulated each other.
After the race, a swimmer I knew kindly advised me that improving starts and turns could take at least two seconds off one’s time. That’s a very good thing to know. I relaxed my body in the sub pool, changed, and got ready to leave. I learned that I came in fourth place only when I chanced upon the medal desk without checking the race results. It was the first fourth place I had won in my Masters career! As the icing on the cake, I also received the accolade of being in the championships 10 years in a row.
I looked at the medal with deep emotion. The impressive design features the shachihoko, Nagoya’s local emblem.
Having achieved my goal, I decided to set a new one. Come to think of it I have so far attained three goals: to compete in the Masters meet to begin with; to win a medal by achieving eighth place or above; and to compete for 10 successive years. I had been able to fulfill all of these goals.
My next goals are the following:
1) Compete in the Japan Masters Championships for 20 consecutive years.
2) For the next 10 years, always finish faster than when I first competed in the Masters Championships.
3) From the 20th year onward, always finish in third place or above.
It should be noted that my worst Masters time so far was when I first took part in the meet at the age of 42. I will be 61 in my 20th year at the champs. Beating the time I logged at 42 for the next 10 years may be an ambitious goal. But one never knows until one tries. I am perfectly happy as long as I can continue to enjoy swimming, and remain fit and healthy.
The Tokaido Main Line train glided into Nagoya Station. I boarded the Nozomi back to Tokyo. Feeling pleasantly exhausted from head to toe, I enjoyed the view of the green countryside from the window. Once at home, I proudly wore the medals around my neck, allowing myself to imagine what it would be like to be a medal-winning Olympic athlete.
July 17, 2013
Written at home