Trailblazers: Defying common sense to achieve the unprecedented

Naoko Takahashi of Japan takes the tape to win the Women's Marathon on Day Nine of the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, Australia.
Naoko Takahashi of Japan takes the tape to win the Women's Marathon on Day Nine of the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, Australia.

In every day and age, there are people who pioneer uncharted territory. They are often referred to as trailblazers. In this series, we look back on athletes who led the way for Japan and delivered unprecedented success for the nation - starting with TAKAHASHI Naoko, the gold medal winner of the women's marathon at the Olympic Games Sydney 2000.

TAKAHASHI Naoko wins Japan's first athletics gold

“It was a fun 42 kilometres,” Takahashi said, with no apparent sign of fatigue after the race, as she expressed her joy of winning the gold medal. The 28-year-old woman with a signature smile not only became the first Japanese female marathon runner but also the first Japanese female athletics athlete to clinch gold in the history of the Olympic Games.

The Sydney 2000 Games was Takahashi’s sixth marathon competition. With a lot of ups and downs, the Sydney marathon course was rated as being the most challenging course in the history of the Games. With 13 out of 54 runners holding records under two hours and 25 minutes, a high-level competition was expected.

As instructed by KOIDE Yoshio, her coach, Takahashi kept pace with the pack until reaching the uphill stage after the 18km mark, where she made a decisive move. Halfway up the hill, she picked up even more speed, turning the race into a duel with Lidia Simon, a gold medal candidate from Romania.

Yet, Takahashi was relaxed. She had trained at high altitudes of over 3,500 metres, challenging herself to persevere rigorous distances of 50 or 60 kilometres. At the 35km mark, she flung off her sunglasses to her father on the roadside, as if to give a sign, and geared up for the last acceleration.

She started on her last spurt when she had only three kilometres to go. Powering away from Simon who desperately tried to keep up, she crossed the line as the first Japanese female athlete to achieve victory. She registered the then Olympic best time of 2:23:14. Without so much as crouching down, she held both arms up in utter joy of accomplishment, waving her hands as the crowd cheered in the stadium.

Born in Gifu in 1972, Takahashi took up athletics in junior high school as a middle-distance runner, but her name at the time was not so well-known on the national level. It was after she had joined a corporate team and was discovered by Koide that she began to show budding talent.

The high-altitude training at 3,500 metres was reputed as being “beyond the scope of common sense,” but Takahashi and Koide purposefully took on the challenge.

“Common sense should be defied to achieve the unprecedented,” she said.

No Japanese female athlete in athletics had ever won the gold medal in the Olympic Games before. To aim for a goal that has never been achieved, following one’s common sense is not the answer. That is why Takahashi untiringly trained herself in her own unique ways.

The gold medal she clinched with a smile proved that persistent efforts can thrust you into uncharted territory.