Didn’t want to leave Rio
Nikaido : When I saw your performance at the Rio Olympics last year, I thought such a great young talent had come on the scene. When did you start table tennis?
Ito : I started when I was almost three years old. My parents used to play table tennis, and because I watched them playing now and then, I became interested and wanted to start playing it myself. This is how I started.
Nikaido : Table tennis is such a popular sport, isn’t it?
Ito : I am very happy about it. These days, we get invited to TV programs more often, and both men’s and women’s games are featured in many news programs.
Nikaido : Ai Fukuhara is a good example, isn’t she? The entire nation was watching her grow up and supporting her throughout her career, from when she was a tearful toddler, practicing with tears in her eyes, until her marriage.
Ito : That’s right (laughs). This popularity of table tennis is surely largely attributed to Ms. Fukuhara, and I am very much thankful for her contribution and efforts in passing it down to our generation. I do respect her, and I’m very grateful I could play on the big stage like the Olympics, together with such a great player. It was truly a precious time for me.
Nikaido : Didn’t you feel any fear?
Ito : I didn’t. I was just over the moon (laughs). I was watching the singles during the week before the team matches and I couldn’t wait to play.
Nikaido : You were burning for it, weren’t you? (laughs) I assume that people normally feel pressured when they stand on the big stage like the Olympics.
Ito : I also expected myself that I would get nervous because it was the first time for me to take part in the Olympics. But in fact, I didn’t get nervous at all, I rather enjoyed it very much and didn’t want to leave Rio.
Nikaido : Hahaha! I bet you became the center of attention all at once when you won a medal at Rio. And many things have changed around you, I guess.
Ito : That’s true. Most of the time I play against an opponent who is older than me, and they literally play to beat me. I had never got pressured before, but after the Rio Games, I slightly changed and started feeling pressure a bit, and also started disciplining myself as a medalist, which resulted in me losing my style of playing for some time.
Nikaido : I see... So you spent the year after the Rio Olympics feeling restless with some kind of competitive pressure.
Rivals are a precious existence
Ito : But of course, it was a great experience to me, and I appreciate the fact that I could go through that kind of difficult time. Only recently, I’ve become relaxed and more stable.
Nikaido : Listening to your story, I’ve just recalled something similar. At an early stage of my career, I used to take on acting gamely, but once I started to overthink my performance, I found acting somehow difficult, not quite right. I think it is important for us to realize such moments and change the situation by ourselves.
Ito : After Rio, I got inspired by the fighting spirits of the players of my generation such as Miu Hirano, the winner of the Asian Table Tennis Championships. Still, I believe that it’s more important to focus on making my play truly mine than just making efforts. And when I saw the great performance of other players of my age, I realized that it was a great opportunity for me to return to my natural style.
Nikaido : Did that experience make you find table tennis more enjoyable and fun?
Ito : Yes. I’ve been enjoying table tennis since I was a child, and I still love it. I’m naturally a person who doesn’t get nervous, but I have realized that I don’t get nervous because I really enjoy challenging myself, trying to deliver my best performance in a game.
Nikaido : Wow, that sounds brilliant. Of course whether you win or lose is worth focusing on, but more than that, people are moved and fascinated because each game has a story. I am moved when I see players shaking hands and having a friendly chat after a game.
Ito : Table tennis is a sport that needs an opponent to play a game. So I always shake hands to thank the opponent no matter if I win or lose. I have just become able to shake hands expressing my gratitude recently, though (laughs). Before that, I couldn’t bear handshaking when I lost a game.
Nikaido : You don’t like losing.
Ito : I don’t (laughs).
Nikaido : That means you have grown up, doesn’t it?
Ito : I think I have managed to grow up a little (laughs). Still, I hate losing, though.
Nikaido : Do you have any particular areas where you don’t want to lose, apart from table tennis?
Ito : I hate losing in everything (laughs). Especially, I don’t like losing in sports. I used to play football too when I was small, and I hated losing, particularly to boys, so I would come home with an injury every day.
Nikaido : You were such an active girl (laughs). Who would be your rival you would hate to lose to?
Ito : Miu Hirano is a good rival to me, and a good peer too. I’ve played many matches with her since I was five years old. We have been encouraging each other and going through hard training to go to the Olympics together. And I fought at Rio and Miu was there as a reserve member, supporting me. So when I won the medal, I first placed it around her neck. When I heard her saying that she was so eager to take part in the Tokyo Olympics, I was quite naturally inspired and motivated by her words.
Nikaido : Rivals make you grow, don’t they?
Ito : Indeed. If it wasn’t for my rivals, I couldn’t have reached this stage. I’m grateful that I’ve been able to play table tennis with such a great rival since I was five, and I feel that all that time and efforts are delivering results now.
Love meeting people
Nikaido : What do you do to refresh? What kinds of things do you enjoy apart from table tennis?
Ito : I’ve been getting into makeup lately. I started enjoying it when figure skater Marin Honda said she enjoyed makeup application. We are both based in Kansai region and we often meet up and hang around together, so I was influenced by her. I like meeting with athletes of other sports, which is much fun and refreshing.
Nikaido : Do you like meeting people?
Ito : I love it. When I’m traveling overseas, I usually stay in a single room. I enjoy staying alone but at the same time, I miss my friends and long to meet them as soon as I return to Japan.
Nikaido : You can share a lot of things with other athletes even though they play a different sport, right?
Ito : They are not rivals to me simply because they play different sports but I very much appreciate them as good peers, hanging around together and encouraging each other to deliver our best performance in our own sports.
Nikaido : Wonderful, isn’t it?
Aiming at gold at Tokyo
Nikaido : What is your biggest motivation now?
Ito : That’s the Tokyo Olympics. I have a dream of winning gold medals both in singles and team events. Tokyo was selected to host the Olympics when I was 12 years old, and I was so excited about the news that I wrote about my dream in an essay at school. I will be 20 in 2020, and I think that suits me just fine. (laughs)
Nikaido : That’s a perfect timing for you, right? (laughs)
Ito : When I was 12 years old, I thought I needed to be selected for the previous games, Rio, if I wanted to win a gold medal at Tokyo, so I set the target. I first thought it could be very hard but I often voiced it, motivating myself. I continued training and practicing at my own pace, and then, I was named and went to Rio.
Nikaido : It’s quite impressive that you at the age of 12 created a plan and roadmap towards you at the age of 20. And you have accomplished it so far. That’s amazing. What about the process for Tokyo? Do you have any plans?
Ito : We have three years to go until the Tokyo Olympics, but in fact there are just two years, because the players will be named one year prior to the Games. During that period, I believe it is important to play in as many international competitions as possible and deliver good results, achieving a higher ranking. So I set the target of winning a team gold medal at World Table Tennis Championships next year, and winning a single gold medal in the following year, achieving the top ranking among Japanese players.
Nikaido : Wow, that’s excellent! I think it’s not easy for people to articulate their own targets in public and I always tend to announce a target smaller than I actually have in mind (laughs).
Ito : Ahaha! In fact, people often tell me that I set quite big targets, but at the same time, that can be a good encouragement for me. At Rio, I deliberately said “I will get a medal” because I wanted to encourage and motivate myself.
Nikaido : You are fighting against yourself, right?
Ito : Yes, I don’t like to lose to myself and look like someone who just has a big mouth. So I want to keep training and do my best to achieve my goal going forward. (laughs)
Nikaido : I am looking forward to your success!
Ito : Thank you very much. I will do my best to win a gold medal at Tokyo and place it around your neck!