Every day there are those who strive to move forward: With an Olympic year finally upon us, MOMOTA Kento looks ahead to a historic summer of sport on home soil.
Living each day of his unpredictable life to the fullest, world champion badminton player MOMOTA Kento only looks towards the future.
Last January, as the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games drew near, Momota survived a car accident while abroad for a tournament, and just two months later it was announced the Olympics would be postponed. Throughout this, he has been able to maintain his positivity because of the support of those around him.
The challenging year has also changed his mindset towards the Tokyo 2020 Games. His determination is unwavering. Fuelled by everybody’s expectations, he will take the coveted stage once again at the age of 26, filled with gratitude, passion for the sport, and hope for the recovery of the Tohoku disaster areas.
The fatal accident and postponement of the Games
When the Games were postponed in late March 2020, Momota was facing an uncertain future. On 13 January, while abroad for a tournament in Malaysia and before any COVID-19 cases were reported in Japan, Momota was involved in a fatal collision where the driver of the vehicle lost his life. Further medical examinations upon his return to Japan revealed that he had a fracture in the right eye socket. After undergoing surgery, it was not until late February that he was able to start practicing again.
“I felt I had to intensify the training. Do as much as possible and give up any time off because it wouldn’t be enough to make up for the two months I had missed. I was anxious about not being able to compete, and there wasn’t enough time for me to settle my emotions. But I felt I had to keep going.”
Rehabilitation after surgery proved to be the most difficult time. After undergoing surgery in Tokyo, he returned home to Kagawa. Apart from the eye exercises, he was ordered to rest. And for the first time since he began playing badminton, days passed when he did not reach for the racket that had become an intrinsic part of his life.
“Being told not to move was the hardest part. I really wanted to practice. My hometown isn’t a big city, so it would’ve felt great to go running. I kept thinking about things like that all the time.”
No matches, but training continued
After surviving a near-fatal accident that could have permanently ended his badminton career, Momota faced a gap that he had never experienced before. Because he was in the midst of overcoming these considerable setbacks, he was able to accept the postponement of the Games relatively easily and remain positive.
“I knew what I was lacking, but didn’t have enough time. By gaining an extra year, I can keep pursuing those goals.”
He was able to train during lockdown at his team’s gymnasium. Although they could not gather as a team and the coach was also absent, he continually hit the shuttlecock.
“The dorm for the badminton team is really close to the gymnasium, so I was able to practice. My eyes improved and my body regained its movement. I enjoyed seeing the progress. Although there weren’t any matches, I was able to stay motivated. I like to go shopping, so that was difficult during lockdown, but I was able to train. So I was OK.”
During lockdown Momota stayed very active on social media, engaging with kids and junior athletes as well as fellow athletes from other sports. He had always enjoyed visiting schools and interacting with pupils. And as a world-class athlete, he had a lot to share.
“Without matches, there wasn’t an opportunity to engage with the kids. When you become overly anxious, you lose leeway. Although there was concern over the loss of the Games, I was determined to not feel that way. It was hard to express these things in words, but by doing so, I was also able to work through my own feelings.”
Reaffirmation of support, encouragement and expectations
Momota has experienced numerous setbacks during his lifetime. After finishing elementary school in Kagawa, he enrolled in a renowned junior high school in Fukushima. In 2011, during his second year at Tomioka High School, the Great East Japan (Tohoku) Earthquake occurred. In 2016, he was banned from competing at the Olympic Games in Rio for illegal gambling. Receiving encouragement and support from those around him after every hurdle made him stronger.
As he reflects on past difficulties, his tone intensifies.
“I’ve created problems and some just happen,” he said. “I’ve caused concern to those around me, and every time they’ve come to my aid. I can’t be spoiled by that and settling isn’t an option, which is easier said than done. I really have to take a hard look at myself.”
His ability to stay positive after the accident was once again because of the encouragement of many supporters. The year-long postponement of the Games has provided a valuable time of reaffirmation, and his perseverance has made him even stronger. His mindset towards the Tokyo 2020 Games has also started to change.
“Honestly, I didn’t think the Olympics were everything. I didn’t focus on the outcome of each tournament, but rather whether or not I reached the goals I had set for myself. It’s important to win, but I wanted to master the sport. Then, so much happened and I started to see the significance of the Olympics.”
Momota feels the encouragement and the expectations of his supporters. After visiting schools, he received letters from students wishing him “good luck” and “please win a gold medal”. Momota’s Olympic dreams are not just his alone.
“Winning a gold medal is a way to invigorate the badminton world. It’s not only for myself, but for the sport. I feel the pressure to meet people’s expectations. But that’s a feeling you only experience when people have high expectations of you. I want to think about that in a positive way and channel it as motivation.”
Striving to play on another level and become a gold-medal winner
During this extra year, Momota has grown stronger as a player - both mentally and technically - as he strives to win the gold medal at Tokyo 2020 to make him an undisputed champion. With six months remaining until the Games, his progress continues.
“I’m not satisfied, but there’s still time. I’m working on my offence and want to improve the accuracy of each play. To win effortlessly and play on a different level. I want to be a leader within the sports world.”
His first Olympics will be an important milestone. Momota already knows this, and when he stands on the court at the Tokyo 2020 Games, he will play with his heart full of appreciation.
“The badminton court at the Olympics will be a place where I can show my gratitude. I’d like for the Games to deliver vigor and hope to Fukushima and other disaster-stricken areas still affected by the earthquake of ten years on. There weren’t many uplifting headlines in 2020, so it would be nice to provide some optimism in Japan through sports. The world is unpredictable, so you have to live each day to the fullest and without regret. That’s the kind of message I’d like to convey.”
Reaching the world’s stage after overcoming numerous setbacks, Momota’s passion is sure to strike the hearts of many.