Japanese 800m runner continues to pursue two goals - to compete at a home Olympics and to help female athletes and mothers
Among the athletes who have qualified for, or are aiming to qualify for, the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020, there are those who are simultaneously building a completely different career. HIROTA Yuuki, a track athlete competing in the women’s 800m, is one such athlete.
Having been a medical student until spring this year, Hirota has already passed the national examination for medical practitioners to become a doctor. She did this all while devoting her time training to secure a place at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020. Let’s look at how she doubles as a track athlete who will soon start medical training.
Inspired by her mother
Hirota has two sides to her life — her life as a track athlete and that of an aspiring doctor.
In spring 2020, Hirota graduated from the Faculty of Medicine, Akita University, where she worked hard as a medical student to pass the national examination for medical practitioners. At the 2018 Japan National Championships, she finished fourth in the 800m with a personal best time of 2:4.33. She also competed at the Japan National University Championships. Despite having to cope with limited training time due to long clinical training hours, Hirota managed to juggle life as an athlete and medical student for six years.
“My life was tremendously fulfilling. I even wanted to continue doubling as an athlete and a medical student,” she recalled.
Deciding to become a doctor to follow her mother footsteps, an ophthalmologist who ran a private practice on the ground floor of their family home.
“Being an only child, I often went down to talk to her patients when I wanted someone to play with. Seeing my mother working as an eye doctor, I got the idea of becoming an ophthalmologist just like her. I remember writing an essay at elementary school that I wanted to become, not just a ‘doctor,’ but an ‘eye doctor’.”
In her fifth year at elementary school, she took up athletics after joining a summer athletics club, which had been organised to prepare for an athletics meet in Niigata City - her hometown. She raced in the 800m at the meet, and ever since she has honed her skills as a middle-distance runner.
“When I started junior high school, my coach asked me which event I wanted to compete in, and I told him that the only event I had ever experienced was the 800m. Since then, I’ve never had the opportunity to take up any other event. In retrospect, I would like to go back in time and tell myself that there are other events that attract more attention,” she laughed.
After entering Niigata High School, she started to balance her academics and sport life more. On weekends, she would compete in athletic meets and when exams came up, she studied hard. She later won the 800m at the Inter-High School Athletic Meet in her third year of high school, as well as passing the university entrance exam to become a medical student.
Competitive mindset returns at university athletics club
At university, Hirota wanted to solely concentrate on her studies and quit athletics altogether. However, when she enrolled at Akita University, members of the university’s athletics club for medical students invited her to join through social media.
“Right after the enrollment ceremony, members of the athletics club found me and asked me out to lunch, where I was told all the nice things about the club being exclusively for medical students and its laid-back atmosphere. They persuaded me to just give it a casual try, so, I decided to join,” she said.
When she decided to come back to athletics, she found that the same competitiveness that drove her to aim for top-level meets had never really gone away.
At the Japan National University Championships final, held in her fourth year, Hirota settled for second place with a time of 2:05.01.
“I had seen athletes abroad clocking below 2:01 on video footage, but it was the first time for me to directly feel the speed from right behind. I realised that this was the speed required to compete at the Olympic level. At first, I was slightly disillusioned, but I soon realised that it was a precious experience that allowed me to gain a hands-on feel of the standard required for the Olympic Games.”
Giving 100 per cent to athletics
Having competed as a top-tier athlete and passing the national exam for medical practitioners, she still felt dissatisfied. Her athletics record hadn’t improved since high school and she felt she could have also attained higher scores in her medical exams.
“I pondered how I could get over this lingering feeling of regret, and I came to the conclusion that I should do what I can in the moment.”
“I knew that when I’m older, I wouldn’t be able to concentrate only on athletics, so I thought it would be best if I could focus on athletics first, and then move on 100 per cent to training as a doctor. That way, I would be able to pursue the ultimate instead of taking a half-hearted attitude.”
She is now focussing on athletics in a bid to secure a berth at Tokyo 2020 and after fighting it out on the track, she will chase down her ultimate dream of becoming a doctor.
“Now, I have decided against becoming an ophthalmologist, and feel that I would like to pursue a career in obstetrics and gynaecology. Being an athlete, I hear about other female athletes suffering from problems concerning their mental health and physiological functions. It would be great if I could support them. Also, in clinical training, the area I found to be the most fascinating was childbirth. I felt a strong desire to help mothers. I’m hoping to become an obstetrics and gynaecology specialist to fulfil both of these wishes.”
Aiming to become a doctor close to patients
The ideal doctor Hirota has in mind is one who is close to her patients.
“By leveraging my communication skills and the way of thinking that I acquired through my lifestyle, I will strive to become a doctor who can listen carefully to patients,” she said.
Through her experiences, Hirota gives advice to younger students pursuing both sports and an academic career like herself.
“I was probably able to enjoy both without suffering mentally because I aimed for 80 per cent in both worlds. Instead of being a perfectionist, it may work better if you consider that it’s easier to pursue two goals than to concentrate on just one area.”
Believing that pursuing two goals — to compete at Tokyo 2020 and become a doctor close to her patients — makes her whole, Hirota continues to sprint toward these targets.