After years of hiatus following an injury, the Japanese athlete is back in form and intends to win a gold medal at a home Olympics
Japan’s first athletics world records were set in 1931 by NANBU Chuhei (long jump) and ODA Mikio (triple jump).
Now, after 90 years, race walker SUZUKI Yusuke is the only Japanese world record holder in an Olympic sport. In 2015, during a men’s 20km race walk event in Japan, Suzuki set the world record of 1:16:36, which to this day is yet to be broken.
But what is it like to break a world record?
Suzuki shares his journey towards his record-breaking moment and his aspirations for the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 - where he'll compete in the men’s 50km race walk.
A world record within reach
“At last I’ve reached a point where I can aim for a medal in the world,” Sukuzi said as he lined up for the Asian Race Walking Championships in March 2015.
A year prior, he had finished fourth at the IAAF World Race Walking Cup 2014, before going on to win a silver medal after edging out top-tier Chinese race walkers at the Asian Games. While he had been signed by a corporate team, his results at international competitions remained lacklustre. However, Suzuki knew he was steadily closing the gap with the world’s top race walkers.
Then came the history-making race in Nomi City, Ishikawa Prefecture - Suzuki’s hometown - at the Asian Race Walking Championships.
“I’ll be able to at least break the Asian record,” he thought, as he stood on the start line.
The Asian record was 1:17:36 and the world record was 1:17:16, only 20 seconds apart.
“If I can walk one second faster per kilometre, I can hope to set a new world record."
When the race started, his body moved effortlessly, allowing him to walk at world record pace.
“At around the 10km point, I was already about 20 seconds ahead of the world record, so I thought I would be able to break it if I could maintain the pace,” he explained.
He was walking so fast that his coaching team asked him if he was okay, but when he passed the last 5km point, they rallied him on, telling him: “Keep going at this pace. You’ll break the world record.”
He came first with a time of 1:16:36, breaking the world record by 40 seconds. The crowd in Nomi was ecstatic.
“The greatest reason behind my victory is my tireless efforts to become the world’s top race walker,” Suzuki said.
Becoming the world’s fastest
Since junior high school, Suzuki had a dream of becoming the world’s fastest race walker.
Around his third or fourth year of elementary school, he joined a local athletics class with his older brother. This was his first encounter with athletics. The class mainly taught long-distance running, so he joined the athletics club at his junior high school with the intention of continuing as a long-distance runner.
This was where he was given the opportunity to try race walking.
“The teacher in charge of the club made it compulsory for all first-year students to participate in a regional athletic meet, which was a run up to the prefectural competition,” he reminisced.
"The teacher thought it was a good idea to have everyone compete in the race walk event for a start. That’s when I encountered race walking [for the first time]."
Suzuki finished among the top walkers at the meet, which prompted him to take up race walking (from the second year of junior high school).
He was one of the top walkers at prefectural level and became more captivated by the sport. Adding to the fun was being able to train with high school students who happened to use the same track. Sometimes he'd beat these older athletes.
“I was captivated by the excitement of being able to win against older athletes,” Suzuki said.
It was around this time that he met UCHIDA Takayuki, the race walk instructor he admires.
“Mr. Uchida’s favourite expression was ‘win with tenacity’, meaning ‘to maintain a strong mindset and aim higher’. This was the backbone of his teaching. He stressed that I should ‘aim higher’ because, in race walk, it should be possible to achieve victory at Inter-High School Athletic Meet and other competitions, and even fight on world stage,” Suzuki said.
Closing the gap with the top athletes
As Uchida had predicted, Suzuki became the champion at the 2005 Inter-High School Athletic Meet while he was a third-year student in high school. Since then, he began to represent Japan at international races. His experiences at the IAAF World Junior Championships in 2004 and 2006 were particularly inspiring for him.
At the 2004 IAAF World Junior Championships, Suzuki competed with MORIOKA Koichiro in the men’s 10,000m race walk event. Morioka, a couple of years older than Suzuki, later competed in back-to-back Olympic Games: Beijing 2008 and London 2012.
While Suzuki finished 17th with a time of 43:43.26, Morioka came in sixth, clocking 41:14.61. Two years later, at the same championships, Suzuki clinched a bronze medal with a time of 43:45.62. The fact that he could not outperform Morioka's time was disappointing for him.
“Mr. Morioka was a great athlete and was far ahead of me. Not being able to beat Mr. Morioka, I realised, meant that I was far behind the world’s top athletes. That’s why I promised myself to push harder and become a better race walker to grab the world title someday. It wasn’t just one shortcoming that I had to work on, but rather, everything about me was insufficient — my physical stamina, strength and speed.”
With this new goal, Suzuki continued training. After he was signed by a corporate team, he competed at the Olympic Games London 2012, finishing 36th, running up against a brick wall of the world standard.
Yet, he persevered without giving up and continued to hone his abilities. All his efforts throughout 2014 finally bore fruit in 2015 when he set a new world record.
World’s top 50km race walker eyes Tokyo 2020
After the world championships in August 2015, Suzuki stayed away from competitions for nearly three years, suffering from groin pain which almost saw him tempted to quit.
However, encouraged by his head coach and other coaches, as well as his family, to keep going, Suzuki made a comeback in May 2018. In September of the same year, he topped the podium in the 10,000m race walk event at the Japan National Industrial Teams Championships.
This gave him some hope.
In April 2019, he competed in the 50km event at the Japan National Championships for the first time and grabbed the championship title, which gave him a slot at the world championships in Doha later that year. This, he thought, meant that he had a chance to compete in the 50km at the Tokyo 2020 Games.
At the World Championships, Suzuki was again in the spotlight - his first international competition in a long time. The race, which started at midnight to avoid the severe heat, saw Suzuki lead the pack from the start to win gold. The result also secured him a berth in the 50km race walk event at Tokyo 2020.
Even though the racing environment was new to him, he had let his instinct take control and victory ensued. Suzuki described the race as being “the most unforgettable race ever in my life”.
“Race walking in the middle of the night is a rare experience, so I remember the race as an exceptional one. Doha has scores of skyscrapers with unique designs. The city exuded a surreal atmosphere as I gazed at the scenery while walking.”
However, the victory in the brutal heat took a toll on his body. He later came down with influenza. Now, he is trying to restore his health and is conditioning his body toward next year’s event.
“I have many items on my agenda toward winning the gold medal at the Tokyo 2020 Games, but I should first work on conditioning to steadily prepare for the big event,” he said.
“I’d like to set foot in the Olympic Stadium. Race walk will be held in Sapporo, so we will not be entering the stadium for the race, but as an athletics athlete, I would be missing out if I were to be on the tracks just for the closing ceremony. If I clinch a medal, I will be awarded at the Olympic Stadium, so I’m going to train hard to reach the podium. This will be my way of expressing my appreciation to all the people who have supported me during my difficult times,” he said.
Having overcome quite an ordeal, Suzuki is now determined than ever to “win with tenacity” with the aim of reaching top podium at the Olympic Stadium.