Motivated by Pressure
Nikaido : We started school the same year, right?
Okuhara : Yes, but I was born in March 1995, so I’m a few months younger.
Nikaido : We must have been listening to the same music or watching the same TV programs, I suppose.
Okuhara : Well, in my case, all I did was just play badminton since I was little.
Nikaido : Oh, is that so? So what made you start playing badminton?
Okuhara : My father was an advisor to a high school badminton club and often took me to the club with him, like some kind of baby-sitting. First, my brother said he wanted to play, and then I started playing with my family.
Nikaido : Since then you were into badminton, through elementary to high school, right?
Okuhara : That’s right. I left my home town to go to a high school in another prefecture that was particularly strong in badminton.
Nikaido : Wow, that’s impressive. I believe that you’ve been in the center of attention from an early age and often had to go through pressures including some excessive expectations.
Okuhara : Yes, that’s right.
Nikaido : How did you handle those kinds of pressures and expectations?
Okuhara : When I imagined what kind of player I wanted to be, I thought that I actually needed pressure. So I started visualization training, and once I internalized, I could stay calm even if I was in a stressful situation, facing pressure. That felt just right.
Nikaido : Then, you motivated yourself by pressure, right?
Okuhara : I always think that I need more pressure. (Laughs)
Nikaido : Quite contrary, I’m never comfortable dealing with expectations of others, and the more I realize them, the more I feel like saying, “I can’t bear it!” (Laughs) So I really admire someone who can withstand pressure in a stressful situation.
Okuhara : I really respect wrestler Saori Yoshida as a great athlete for her mental strength, as she has won numerous competitions under such huge pressure, while people took her winning for granted. I believe that’s why she is well-liked and supported by everyone. And I want to follow suit.
Move Ahead Despite Injury
Nikaido : Have you ever thought of quitting badminton and doing something different?
Okuhara : Yes, there was a time when I wanted to become an ordinary girl.
Nikaido : What exactly did you want to do then?
Okuhara : Well, I just wanted to hang around with my friends after school, something like that. I really had no chance to spend time with my friends since I was at elementary school, because I always had to go to trainings after school.
Nikaido : Wow.
Okuhara : Because I went to a high school in Saitama prefecture, leaving my home town in Nagano, my friends would take me to many places on weekends. It was then that I first went to karaoke. But of course, I normally went to practice after school. When I had an injury towards the end of high school, I played cards with my friends after school, and it was the first time for me to play cards. (Laughs)
Nikaido : But you were quite severely injured, right? How did you feel at that time?
Okuhara : I hadn’t thought it was that much serious at first, and I fully enjoyed spending time with my friends instead of going to practice after school. (Laughs) I was thinking that God had given me a recess time. But I started feeling anxious over time as I couldn’t quite get over the injury and it got so bad I had to be operated on. I then realized that I had been too optimistic and shouldn’t have been enjoying this moment.
Nikaido : It was a hard time for you, of course?
Okuhara : Yes, it was. Of course the injury itself was painful and distressing but more than that, it was kind of torturous when I had few things to do.
Nikaido : Right. It was more painful than the actual pain of injury.
Okuhara : I had very limited training activities to avoid inflammation through overstretching during the rehabilitation. Before I got injured, I used to spend a whole day for training and could actually feel that I was improving. But at the early stage of rehabilitation, I was only allowed to do very basic movements required for getting back to normal, like lifting or bending the legs. I spent most of the day lying in bed and could overhear the performance and competition results of the peers now and then. So quite naturally, I started worrying and being pessimistic and falling into a negative spiral.
Nikaido : I see.
Okuhara : Athletes in my age group generally perform quite well in various sports and badminton is not an exception. Peer athletes are playing actively around the world. One year after I graduated from high school, a player of my age won the World Championships, becoming the youngest champion ever. On the other hand, I was still going through rehabilitation and thought that I shouldn’t be stuck in this situation and must move ahead.
Nikaido : Well, that means that your rivals’ successes produced not only pressure but also motivated you, is that right?
Okuhara : Yes, I think so.
Nikaido : You are very brave and strong to take the rivals’ performance in this way and change it to positive motivation, thinking, “I must move ahead”.
Okuhara : I was born competitive so I was so fired up. (Laughs)
Nikaido : I often think that I cannot lose to my mother. When I was getting a driving license, my mom said that an auto car license was nothing to be proud of, because in her time she had no choice but to drive a manual car. (Laughs)
Okuhara : So did you go for a manual car because of what your mom said?
Nikaido : Yes, I’ve got a manual license.
Okuhara : Brilliant! I also have a manual one.
Nikaido : My mother surely has more knowledge and experience but somehow I felt frustrated... Sorry I brought up such a trivial subject! (Laughs)
Okuhara : I do understand. I have a similar experience. When I was at elementary school, my father used to teach me how to play badminton. But he had little experience in playing badminton himself and often forced me to do some thoughtless, far-fetched training. But because I didn’t want to lose to my father, I practiced so hard. So I think I know what you feel.
Nikaido : Well, I guess the level of competitiveness here is quite different and I rather feel embarrassed. (Laughs) But I do like and admire someone who has a competitive spirit and always takes on challenges.
Always Make the Utmost Efforts
Nikaido : Later, you won a title of an international competition and also a bronze medal in 2016 Rio Olympic Games, demonstrating that you were fully recovered from the injury.
Okuhara : I could achieve that because I was supported by so many people. If I hadn’t been injured, I wouldn’t have started paying attention to my body and physical condition. And it helped me to expand my play styles as well, so being injured turned out to be a valuable experience to me.
Nikaido : When you entered the world stage, did you find anything new or different?
Okuhara : International competitions sounded very far and unrealistic to me before the injury. But once I got back to competition, I could feel that I was close enough to the world stage and excited that I might be able to challenge myself even further. And later when I got injured two years in a row, I thought I couldn’t make it to the Rio Olympics. But I realized that I had nothing but to concentrate on what I could do and went through trials and errors. Then, before I knew it, I was where I am.
Nikaido : You have opened the door to the world by focusing on everyday training instead of aiming for the world.
Okuhara : Yes, so far, this journey has been great fun.
Nikaido : At an international game or Olympic Games, Japanese supporters cheer you up like close friends of yours, by saying things like, “you can do it!”, don’t they? How do you feel about that as a player?
Okuhara : I was in the second year of junior high school when I was first named for the World Junior Championships. Since then, I took it for granted playing in international games. But the Rio Olympics was totally different in scale. I didn’t expect to see such a huge audience at the Parade of Nations. Rio de Janeiro is on the other side of the globe and there is a 12-hour time difference. Given that these people both cried with us and rejoiced with us, and yet gave us their full support, I feel very grateful and motivated, too.
Nikaido : Is there anything else that motivates you or you count on? Do you have any hobbies?
Okuhara : I try to go out on a day off, enjoy window shopping and dining out.
Nikaido : Ah, you enjoy girly things too, don’t you?! (Laughs) Would you still want to play badminton if you were born again?
Okuhara : I used to dream of living an ordinary life, but I have changed my mind and now I want to play badminton in my next life too.
Nikaido : That sounds wonderful! Do you ever think about marriage?
Okuhara : At high school, I had a class activity to design a life plan for the next 50 years, and according to that plan, I am supposed to get married at the age of 28. Well, it sounds a long way to go still. (Laughs)
Nikaido : Oh, dear. Well, you need first to focus on the Tokyo Olympics, right?
Okuhara : Yes. I will be 25 in 2020 so I will have gained enough experience, entering into the best, most fruitful period as an athlete. I believe it is important to make ongoing efforts day by day like I did it for the Rio Olympics, and I believe I will deliver a result by just doing what I can do, making the utmost efforts.
Nikaido : You sound so promising. I’m always supporting you.