I do it to become No.1
Nikaido : Nice to meet you, Ms. Hamada, and you look great! How slender you are...
Hamada : Well, I’m just tall, that’s all (laughs).
Nikaido : You are 174 cm tall, right? That means you are about 20 cm taller than me. Have you ever had any growing pains?
Hamada : Yes, I have.
Nikaido : I have never experienced those but I always wished I had. In fact, I lied saying “it hurts!” (laughs). You have long legs, too.
Hamada : My inside leg measures something like 80 cm, I guess.
Nikaido : Wow, that’s a kind of length a kindergarten kid can fit in (laughs). What made you start taekwondo, in the first place?
Hamada : It was when I was at kindergarten so I hardly remember the details but my brother was already practicing taekwondo then, and apparently I said I wanted to try it, too. But I was told that the taekwondo club only accepted girls of elementary school age and older so I had to wait.
Nikaido : You watched your brother practicing and you became interested in taekwondo, right? So you’ve been focusing on taekwondo since you entered the elementary school?
Hamada : I went to the club twice a week, just for fun, practicing as if playing with my friends, especially as I could win the matches easily. And I started another club activity when I was at junior high.
Nikaido : Really? What did you do then?
Hamada : It did track and field. I started taking taekwondo more seriously after I became a high school student.
Nikaido : Well, did you have any particular reasons for starting to take it seriously?
Hamada : Since I was at elementary school, I’d always had a vague dream of participating in the Olympic Games. Of course it was just a dream until I was at junior high. Actually, I was rather pursuing another dream of becoming a professional boat racer.
Nikaido : Wow! Were you really?
Hamada : Yes, I was much more into boat racing then. But when I went in for what I thought would be my last taekwondo competition, I met my coach. He has an experience of representing the Japan national team and as soon as I had a training session with him, did some mitt work, I thought it was totally different from what I had done, realizing that this is real taekwondo.
Nikaido : You made a new discovery, right?
Hamada : That’s right. And he once said to me, “Being a world champion is not just a mere dream”. And I believed his words, starting to think that I could actually be a world champion. That made me focus on taekwondo.
Nikaido : Did you get excited when you heard what the coach said?
Hamada : In the beginning, I found trainings so hard and I still don’t know how I managed. But when I first took part in an international competition, in which I lost in the second round, I could feel that I was strong enough and okay to aim at the world championship if I committed to hard training. Since then I became more and more focused on taekwondo, deciding that “now that I commit to taekwondo, No. 2 or 3 are not good enough, I do it to become No.1”.
Nikaido : Have you been so particular about being No.1 since you were a child?
Hamada : Yes, I don’t like losing (laughs). My brothers are good rivals as they also practice taekwondo. Of course I often lose in a practice match but I still hate to lose. I reckon we are improving all together.
Nikaido : That sounds beautiful. You and your brothers get together, devoted to one common thing.
Hamada : We often fight against each other in a practice match (laughs).
Nikaido : That’s brilliant! Your father is also very enthusiastic about taekwondo, isn’t he?
Hamada : That’s right. My father is an excellent supporter. I believe we are all encouraged and motivated by him.
Nikaido : Have you ever had a quarrel with him?
Hamada : I don’t think I have. Looking back now, I think he supported us with his love and affection.
Nikaido : What a lovely family! Old cartoons featuring a never-give-up spirit in sports often have a typical scene of a hyper-enthusiastic father giving passionate guidance to his child and always quarreling with each other (laughs)… By the way, when I sit for an interview, I’m often asked a question which I never feel comfortable to answer… but may I ask you the same question? What are your hobbies (laughs)?
Hamada : I like fishing (laughs). I can only go fishing once a year or so though, but I enjoy sea fishing.
Nikaido : You have a great hobby! When did you start?
Hamada : My father likes fishing, and we as a family would go fishing once or twice a year since I was a child, and I really enjoyed it.
Nikaido : Your father has had a great influence on your life, hasn’t he? I imagine he plays a mainstay role, bonding the family closely together.
Spirit rather than techniques
Nikaido : How do you describe and explain taekwondo to those who have no idea at all about the sport?
Hamada : In short, I would say it is “leg boxing”. We hardly give a punch, it merely happens, maybe just one out of 10 attacks, and we just kick for the rest of the time.
Nikaido : That sounds tough. That said, taekwondo is such an exciting sport to watch. It’s exhilarating. I bet you also feel so good when you make a bold move by applying a perfect technique in a match.
Hamada : Yes, that’s true. There are many different types of practitioners, and I am the one who plays many small moves and tricks, not like someone who make bold moves. So, maybe it doesn’t look very exciting or fun but somehow I stick to that style. At the same time, though, I also think that I wish I could make a bold move with an accurate technique and excite the audience (laughs).
Nikaido : Aha! But that is the style you find most comfortable, right?
Hamada : Yes. I always try to vex my opponent by steadily kicking with small moves, that’s my style. I normally wear a poker face, never change my face expression even if I’m harshly kicked by the opponent or I kick her back successfully. On the other hand, the opponent often wards off my kicks with her hands and gives a frown, showing her anger, which, I think, is a good sign of the opponent being annoyed and it’s a good chance of my winning, too.
Nikaido : Maybe, it could be easier to check the face expression of the opponent to predict victory or defeat (laughs). What traits of your character do you think suit taekwondo?
Hamada : Taekwondo is an individual sport that you fight against an opponent, and you have to fight on your own after all. So I believe it’s important to keep a good balance of spirit, techniques and physical strength, and particularly spirit plays a vital role. In this sense, I regard myself as a person who doesn’t sway in emotion, and that suits taekwondo, I think.
Nikaido : And of course, your height is a big advantage, isn’t it?
Hamada : Yes, I think so too. Taekwondo has classes so it can be an advantage if you have a long reach. But I still believe that spirit is more important than these kinds of physical advantages. Of course skills are also important but it doesn’t mean anything if you cannot demonstrate such skills in a match.
Nikaido : Through my experience of talking with many athletes and listening to their stories, they always say that at the end of the day, you have to fight against yourself. I’ve learned that the spirit means a lot for athletes. But have you ever lost your heart?
Hamada : Of course I have. But when I feel down, I allow myself to accept that feeling once and rest a bit, and try not to push myself too hard at training. I want to adjust little by little to achieve my ultimate goal, which is of course, the gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics.
Still growing stronger
Nikaido : 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games will be in …
Hamada : It’s in three years’ time.
Nikaido : How do you feel now, having just three years to go before the Tokyo Olympics?
Hamada : After I won the gold medal at the world championships in 2015, I lost in the second round in the Rio Olympics last year, and I reached the quarterfinals at the world championships in this June. I still believe in myself that I can win a medal so I continue challenging myself in order to achieve the top among the world top athletes.
Nikaido : If you had to further improve something, what would you like to improve?
Hamada : I think I can still increase my mental strength. But it doesn’t mean that I want to go for mental training or anything like that. I’d rather want to think for myself and try things that I have been challenged with through the support of my coach and my family.
Nikaido : Through this talk, I’ve learned that you have never set a limit on yourself; you believe in yourself that you can grow even stronger, right?
Hamada : Well, I haven’t quite depicted my ultimate goal yet. And that means I can still go on, I believe.
Nikaido : Wow. You are the first Japanese taekwondo practitioner who won the world championships and I think there is no one who can defeat you in Japan. How do you maintain your motivation while aiming at the world?
Hamada : When I’m training in a dojo, I see a lot of kids, including kindergarten kids, practicing in earnest. Whenever I watch them training so hard, making their utmost efforts, they remind me of my early days and I feel that I must put my all into it.