Japan won a total of 41 medals (12 gold, 8 silver, and 21 bronze) at the Olympic Games Rio 2016, but what thoughts crossed the minds of Japanese athletes as they appeared on the biggest stage of them all? In this series, we look back at the incredible events from Brazil that are still fresh in the collective memory of the next host country.
“Yosshaaaah!” [‘Yeah!’] roared MIZUTANI Jun at the top of his voice, punching the air with both fists as he crumpled to the floor in utter elation. Vladimir SAMSONOV’s return had hit the net, allowing Mizutani to clinch the bronze medal at last in his third Olympic Games, a groundbreaking feat in the history of Japanese table tennis, in both men and women’s singles.
Mizutani had consistently held the upper hand throughout the bronze medal match. Following his own belief that the key to victory was to take an early lead, he won both the first and second games. Though he did lose the third game, in the fourth he displayed outstanding skill, including a lightning reaction to his opponent’s edge ball that earned him a valuable point, putting him one game away from the bronze.
In game five, every point seemed increasingly laborious as victory drew near. “Samsonov gained each of his points effortlessly, but I had to hit five or six shots to score each of mine,” Mizutani commented.
Nonetheless, when the score reached match point at 10-8, Mizutani gave his all, thinking he would have regrets for the rest of his life if he failed to grab the final point. The thrill was immediately followed by sheer jubilation.
While Mizutani lay on his back savouring the moment in the first few seconds after his victory, memories of his long life of table tennis, with all the matches and training, flashed through his mind.
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His first milestone was playing in the World Table Tennis Championships in April 2005 at the age of 15 years and 10 months. In the All Japan Table Tennis Championships, he took the crown eight times over a decade starting from 2007.
Despite reigning as the table tennis champion in Japan, Mizutani failed to overpower the world’s leading players at the past two Olympic Games, as he was defeated in round three at the Beijing 2008 Games and in the round-of-16 at the London 2012 Games. He was especially devastated by his loss at London 2012 because there had been high expectations that he would claim a medal as the third seed.
There was a time when Mizutani stayed away from table tennis for months on end after the 2013 World Table Tennis Championships, where he was defeated in the first round.
“My style of table tennis was in total chaos after London 2012. I couldn’t help thinking that my table tennis career was on a downward spiral from which I might never recover. This drove me to the lowest of lows in life,” he recalled.
After repeatedly asking himself whether it was really the right time to quit, he came to the realisation that his true desire was to “achieve more on the world stage.”
In the same year, Mizutani participated in the Russian League and hired an exclusive private coach. He regained self-confidence as he started winning again, and consistently remained among the world’s top 10 players from 2014.
He decided to take on the challenge of playing at the Olympic Games Rio 2016 with the conviction that he was ready to do so.
Mizutani had grown out of the state of mind that had held him back at the previous two Games, and gained a completely new, unwavering mindset. Even when defeated by MA Long of China in the semi-final, he stayed poised enough to draw lessons from his loss to make improvements in the subsequent bronze medal match.
“I could see that Samsonov was tense, so I managed to keep my cool,” he said, and even added, “Ma Long helped me grow further in the semi-final.”
A medal clinched against highly dominant Chinese players is bound to accelerate the progress of Japanese players. This is because up-and-coming talents will be able to proceed along the path paved by Mizutani, encouraged by the fact that a Japanese player can actually win a medal.
“In the distant future, we will be able to beat the Chinese. We are working hard towards that goal,” said the bronze medallist.
Japan continues to pursue its dream, the possible fulfilment of which was demonstrated at Rio. Mizutani’s bronze medal heralds a new era of flourishing talent in Japanese table tennis and is certain to provide a guiding light for aspiring young players to follow.