Bet my life on a medal
Nikaido : I believe that you are one of the most featured Japanese athletes in the Rio Olympics, Mr. Haneda. When I watched you talking in a comedy chat show, I thought you were absolutely hilarious.
Haneda : I’m totally embarrassed. (Laughs) Well, the TV crews made such an effort to invite me to the show, so I thought I had to do everything I could to create a great show…
Nikaido : Wow...
Haneda : Well, this is where you’re supposed to laugh…
Nikaido : Oh, I didn’t realize that! (Laughs) But, you see, you are so funny but at the same time, you are very serious and stoic when it comes to canoeing, right?
Haneda : I think I’m just doing things that everyone does, nothing special, but in Slovakia, I don’t spare much time on other things than canoeing, so in that sense, it may give you an impression that I’m stoic.
Nikaido : You are based in Slovakia now, right? Didn’t you feel worried or anxious when you first arrived in Slovakia?
Haneda : Not at all. I was rather worried about my career, thinking that if I stayed in Japan I would never reach the world level. When I was in my last year of high school, I placed sixth in Junior & U23 World Championships but I realized that there was a huge gap between me and other world athletes. So I begged my father to allow me to go to Europe once I graduated from high school. My father was very understanding and sent me off to Slovakia.
Nikaido : You were so determined and eager to improve, weren’t you? I’ve once been to New York just for a short term. Through this experience, I’ve learned that sometimes, there is a challenge you can only overcome by leaving a hometown and living in a new place. What made you want to further improve?
Haneda : I didn’t like canoeing that much at the beginning.
Nikaido : What? You didn’t?
Haneda : When I was nine, my father forced me to start canoeing. It was cold, and I didn’t have time to play with my friends, so I didn’t like it much. What is more, I was so scared of swift, strong current. But when I was 15, I first participated in the World Championships and had a great opportunity to see the world top level performance. That experience made me think that this sport was worth challenging. Since then, I started setting clear goals and focused on training. I actually decided to go to an all-male high school that had a canoe club. Before that point, I had never thought about it, wondering who on earth would go to such a school. (Laughs)
Nikaido : Ha-ha.
Haneda : I went to that school for the sake of canoeing, and dedicated myself to canoe slalom for those three years at high school. But I ended up at the sixth place and I thought it was not because I didn’t train hard enough but because of poor training environment. I had no doubt that I worked really hard and devoted all I could to canoeing.
Nikaido : So you asked your father to allow you to go to Europe. I’ve heard that your father is a former canoe athlete himself, right? Do you feel any pressure or influence from your father?
Haneda : I don’t think I’ve followed in my father’s footsteps, but I started canoeing under the guidance of my father, and since then he’s been supporting me, so I really wanted to give back, showing him my gratitude. Of course, I also wanted to show my appreciation to people supporting me in my hometown as well as Miki House, which I belong to now. I believed that giving back meant winning an Olympic medal, that’s the best thing I could do for them. So I really took it seriously, bet my life on canoeing. So when I accomplished my goal in Rio, I was so relieved and I know my father was also very relieved.
Nikaido : You staked your life on winning an Olympic medal. That’s really worth respect.
Haneda : Especially in a minor sport like canoe slalom, a result means everything, we cannot change anything if we only participate in a competition, and we can never give back anything to supporters.
Best performance lies ahead
Nikaido : How much were you feeling pressured?
Haneda : Until early 20s, I simply enjoyed pursuing my dream. But I gradually became more aware of my situation, I realized how fortunate I was and people supported me to such a great extent. I knew that the older I was getting, the closer I was getting to retirement, and I started to feel more worried about my career and my future, thinking that if I failed to win a medal and had to quit canoe sport, how I should explain it to everyone who supported me, and what would happen to my future. Given my age, which didn’t guarantee many chances for the Olympics, I thought Rio would be the best timing for me to aim at a medal.
Nikaido : I’ve heard that a career of a canoe athlete is relatively long. What do you think about your present stage? Do you think you are in your heyday now?
Haneda : Peak performance age of an athlete is between their late 20s to early 30s, in most cases. But in my case, I always try to lead a well-regulated life, stick to a healthy diet and get good sleep, and train myself properly, so I believe I am physically younger compared to other foreign athletes. I think I can still go a little bit further.
Nikaido : So we can expect to see your peak performance going forward, right?
Haneda : My biggest disadvantage is the fact that I had been practicing canoeing in Japan until I was 18. Many athletes in the world have a chance of training in a top class environment from early stages, but for me, I only got such an opportunity when I was 18. Having said that though, I believe that I can still improve and fill the gap against those athletes, and I can still step up towards the Tokyo Olympics.
Nikaido : What do you think about your strengths compared to other athletes?
Haneda : I used to do gymnastics from the age of seven until 10 before starting canoeing. Apparently those years are a good timing for a child to learn various movements. So I think that a sense of balance and flexibility that I learned through gymnastics are my strengths compared to other athletes.
Nikaido : To be honest, I had never watched a race of canoe slalom until the Rio Olympics. What do you think the attractive aspects of canoeing are?
Haneda : As an athlete, I enjoy a sense of accomplishment when I manage to successfully control and paddle a canoe in a swift strong current. And as for audience, you can experience the excitement that is unique to a time race, and I think canoeing is a powerful and dynamic sport.
Nikaido : Each course has different characteristics, right?
Haneda : Yes, they are always different. International competitions set artificial courses. Some courses have slow current whereas others have swift and strong ones. This is also an interesting aspect of canoeing.
Steady effort is a shortcut to success
Nikaido : If I wanted to try canoeing, where should I go?
Haneda : If you are in Tokyo area, you can try it in Okutama, but of course, you can try canoeing in many places throughout Japan.
Nikaido : I’d love to go and try it! During a race, do you get a sense of joy? Or are you more pressured, focusing on a record or result?
Haneda : I guess both. This is still a challenge to me though, I always become too focused and cannot enjoy a race. I believe it is important to keep a good balance. You cannot do a good training if you are always feeling pressured or despaired.
Nikaido : You are so much engaged in a race, I guess, that you are not distracted by anything around you. This may be a big difference between sports and acting. Acting is more likely to rely on sensations, whereas in sports there is a clear distinction between black and white, winning or losing. So actors can be very lazy. (Laughs) I guess you spend most of the time on training in Slovakia. How do you refresh yourself?
Haneda : Um, what do I do to refresh myself? I change the mood by doing something totally different from canoeing. And as I like Japanese history, I take many historical novels from Japan and read them in Slovakia.
Nikaido : Wow, reading a Japanese historical novel in Slovakia!
Haneda : I really like Japanese culture.
Nikaido : What kinds of historical novels do you read?
Haneda : I like Shiba Ryotaro’s “Moeyo Ken (Burn, O Sword)”. A single volume is too short; a two-volume book is just good.
Nikaido : Have you ever taken any learnings from historical novels and reflected them into canoeing?
Haneda : I learned a quote of Miyamoto Musashi;“It takes 1,000 days to forge the spirit and 10,000 days to polish it” and I was deeply impressed by it. It means that a skill can only be developed through diligent and deliberate practice, and I put this quote into my everyday trainings, making small but steady efforts to achieve success.
Nikaido : That sounds wonderful. Your attitude towards canoeing somehow reminds one of a samurai…
Haneda : Uh, I’m much shallower than that! (Laughs)