Yamagata: 2018 was definitely a good year for me. My running was consistent and I finished the season injury-free, and I think it was a year of personal growth. But I’m still not satisfied. I wasn’t able to set any new records last spring and had to postpone my goal of becoming the second Japanese sprinter to break the 10-second barrier in the 100-meter dash.
-Even so, at the 2018 Asian Games you ran the 100-meter dash in 10.00 seconds, matching your personal best, which you’d set one year earlier at the Japan Championships in Osaka.
Yamagata: Yes, but that hundredth of a second from 10.00s to 9.99s means everything. It is something entirely different from cutting your time from, say, 10.50s to 10.49s. The 10-second barrier is as much a physical barrier as it is a psychological one, and it requires everything from the right conditions to plain old luck to be broken. When you think about it that way, someone like Yoshihide Kiryu, the first Japanese runner to break the 10-second barrier, is truly inspiring. I try to always keep abreast of how he’s running, but in the end, the 100-meter dash is really a race against yourself. So while it’s important to pay attention to what other runners are doing, I think your time is really a reflection of how able you are to come face to face with yourself.
-What was it like being captain of the Japanese team at the 2018 Asian Games?
Yamagata: It was a big honor for me to be appointed captain. But I certainly felt the pressure. Though everybody told me not to worry about it too much, as an athlete I couldn’t help but worry until the competition results came in. That said, I think the team was well prepared, and we were all relieved to see the final outcome. It was good for the team to have that positive experience as we head into the IAAF World Championships and the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
-What is your current training regimen like as you work toward breaking the 10-second barrier?
Yamagata: I’ve been developing my own training techniques ever since I was a student, and since 2015 I’ve worked with physical trainer Ken Nakata. With his help, we’ve incorporated exercise physiology into developing a training regimen that has shown definite results. This regimen is what helped me become the second Japanese sprinter to run the 100-meter dash in 10.00 seconds. (Accurate at time of publishing.)
-We’ve heard that your manager, Wataru Setagawa, takes video of all of your practice runs and that you watch them repeatedly, sometimes right there on the track.
Yamagata: Yes, watching the videos definitely helps inform the way that I run. For me it’s very important to maintain a mental image of what good movement is, and watching videos of my performance is the most effective way to do that. Watching these videos over and over again, Setagawa and I start to notice things that may help improve my technique, changes that may have escaped us on our first viewing.
I’ve known Setagawa for eight years now. We ran track together as students and have even taken trips together, so he’s much more than just a manager to me. Since I was also the first employee-athlete to be sponsored by Seiko, I needed a partner who I could trust to assist with things like training, media requests, and registration for competitions.
-You usually practice on the track at Hiyoshi Campus where you two spent your student days.
Yamagata: That’s right. All of my college friends have all graduated, but it’s fun to hang out and talk with current track and field students. In fact, we rarely discuss running and usually end up talking about music and TV shows—the usual pop culture stuff. [laughs] Of course, if students are worried about an upcoming competition, then I’m happy to talk about my own experiences and give them advice.
-You've gained something of a reputation for your starting technique.
Yamagata: I’ve had to really strive to refine my starting technique to make up for my short stature, but it's something I feel confident about. Technique is important to me and it's an area I've always worked hard to improve, ever since I was a child. Even now, I visualize the perfect start in my mind every time I run. A lot can happen between the start and finish line, and I am always thinking of how to break the race up into pieces that are based on my personal condition as well as external conditions like the weather, from the starting line to the 30-meter mark, then the 60-meter mark, and finally the finish line. I think about all kinds of things in those 10 seconds as I try to figure out what’s different when I’ve run a good time.
-When did you first get involved in track and field?
Yamagata: It was in the fourth grade when I happened to participate in a 100-meter dash during a sporting event in Hiroshima. I somehow managed to win despite the fact that I was wearing sneakers and all the other runners had spikes on. The local track and field team immediately invited me to join, which is when I really got my start as a runner.
The next year, I came in eighth at the Nissin Foods Cup, a national track and field tournament for elementary school students. That’s when I first dreamed of becoming the best runner in Japan. For a time, I also considered running hurdles, encouraged by my running coach at the time. When I got home and told my father, he was outraged. I guess he was even more obsessed with the 100-meter dash than I was. [laughs]
I continued to run throughout junior high and high school, and my dream of becoming the fastest 100-meter runner in Japan finally came true as a freshman competing at the National Sports Festival of Japan held in Oita in 2008. I was so happy. I ended up breaking a toe the following year and had to work hard to get back to the level that I'd been performing at. I think I was only able to make a comeback because I'd had a taste of what it's like to be the number one.
-What made you choose Keio?
Yamagata: As college entrance exams drew closer, I started thinking more about how to approach athletic life at university and knew I needed to go somewhere that would give me the freedom to train the way I wanted to, somewhere that would let me find success on my own terms. Keio was the only university that would afford me that kind of freedom. Once I’d made up my mind, I was all in for Keio and applied through the test-optional admissions policy. I can still remember doing a fist pump in front of my computer when I saw that I’d gotten in. [laughs]
-Did training at Keio turn out the way you’d expected?
Yamagata: It did. Even as a first-year student, I was free to devise my own training regimen. In my first year, I marked a new personal best and the following year ran the 100-meter dash in 10.07 seconds at the 2012 Summer Olympics. That was the peak of my college career. Shortly after that, I suffered an injury and had lower back pain until after I graduated. I finally started running again in 2016 and set the Japanese record for the 100-meter dash during the semi-finals at the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro with a time of 10.05 seconds.
-Other than training and competing, what kind of memories do you have of your college days?
Yamagata: I remember a cycling trip I took down to Okazaki in Aichi Prefecture with my track and field teammates, including my current manager Setagawa. One of our friends’ parents had a house down there. It started snowing as we crossed the mountains in Hakone, which was absolutely miserable at the time, but I can laugh looking back on it now. As far as classes go, I remember learning a lot from Prof. Yutaka Murabayashi’s sports business seminar, where we considered ways of boosting sporting event attendance and coached children’s sports classes. These classes made me realize just how difficult it can be to teach elementary school students. It’s much easier working with high school students because they can understand verbal explanations of specific techniques.
-Please tell us about your aspirations for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
Yamagata: I want to exceed all expectations, especially when so many Japanese people will be watching, and I’ve drawn up a blueprint that will help me prepare both mentally and physically. My main priority is breaking the 10-second barrier. First, I’ll train for a whole month in the sunny state of Florida before going to Doha to compete at the IAAF World Championships at the end of September 2019. I’m also doing a lot of mental preparation, visualizing myself standing at the starting line of the finals. What many Japanese athletes lack in physical stature, they make up for with technical prowess, which I think puts them on equal footing with other top athletes from around the globe. As with any other sport, there are three important elements: mind, body, and skill. I can say with confidence that in regards to skill, I perform at a world level. Mentally, I always try to visualize myself performing at my best. After that, it just comes down to how focused I can stay during the race.
-Mental training is important, but how do you switch off?
Yamagata: I enjoy fishing, which is something I started doing after joining the workforce. I’ve always loved it and remember having the fresh fish that my father caught ever since I was a child. I was never able to find fresh fish once I moved to Tokyo, but one day I thought that if I couldn’t find any, then I should just go catch my own. In the off-season, you can find me fishing somewhere close to Tokyo or filleting and cooking the fish that I catch. Fishing has always helped me through hard times when I've been down and out with an injury.
-Could you say a few final words to current students?
Yamagata: Being free also means being responsible for your actions. When I was a student, I got into the habit of investigating my performance and analyzing what led to my injuries. That’s what has made me the athlete I am today. I believe that people start to grow when they accept total responsibility for their actions and start thinking critically for themselves—this is as true for sports as it is for any other field. I hope that students are honest with themselves about their problems and take full advantage of the freedom that Keio students enjoy in order to work through them. You’re sure to find your own way forward.
-Thank you for your time.
Ryota Yamagata graduated from the Faculty of Policy Management in 2015 and joined Seiko Holdings Corporation that April. In high school, he attended running events at national and world youth championships and went on to compete at the London 2012 Summer Olympics while a member of the Keio University Track and Field Club. After graduating, Yamagata participated in the Rio 2016 Summer Olympics, where he took home the silver medal in the men’s 4x100m relay and made it to the semifinals in the men’s 100-meter dash, where he ran a personal best of 10.05 seconds. In 2017, Yamagata became the second Japanese sprinter to run the 100-meter dash in 10.00 seconds. In 2018, Yamagata matched this time, taking bronze at the Asian Games in Jakarta with a time of 10.00 seconds in the 100 meters and winning gold in the men’s 4x100m relay.
*This article originally appeared in the 2019 spring edition (No. 302) of Juku.
*All affiliations and titles are those at the time of publishing, as of April 1, 2019.