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Updated 10 October 2010
Yoshimi OZAKI, Japan (Marathon)
Born: 01 July 1981, Kanagawa Prefecture
1.54m / 41kg
Coach: Sachiko Yamashita
Team: The Dai-ichi Mutual Life Insurance Company
In Japan, the marathon is perceived as far more than an athletics event, holding a special place in the heart of many a Japanese. The people of the country have come to expect a good showing, especially from their women, who won four medals, including two gold, in four consecutive Olympics, from the 1992 Barcelona Games to the 2004 Athens Games. In short, the women’s marathon is a high profile event that receives much attention and cheering and medals are always expected.
However, the event turned disastrous for Japan at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. First, the defending champion Mizuki Noguchi (also national record holder at 2:19:12) withdrew at the last minute due to an untimely injury. Then Reiko Tosa (2nd, 2001 World Championships; 3rd, 2007 World Championships; 5th, 2004 Olympics; PB 2:22:46), one of most tenacious and consistent runners in recent years, dropped out early in the race due to a recurring injury.
This left Yurika Nakamura (7th, 10,000m, 2009 World Championships), running the second marathon of her career in her first Olympics, to carry the hope of her country. She was only 13th, a disappointment for Japanese fans.
Unlike the years leading up to the Athens Olympics, when new stars were constantly emerging, very few new luminaries have come through recently. In the last few years, the sense of crisis has been growing among the people involved in the sport, and their concern was realised in the worst possible way in Beijing.
Then Yoshimi Ozaki came to the rescue. She won the Tokyo International Women’s Marathon, in November 2008, with 2:23:30, thus becoming the tenth fastest Japanese woman in history. With this performance Ozaki was selected to run in the 2009 World Championships, in Berlin, where she won the silver medal.
Like Naoko Takahashi, the 2000 Olympic marathon champion and first woman to crack the 2:20 barrier, and Noguchi and Tosa, Ozaki was relatively unknown during her junior years.
“I became a serious runner only in high school, for I was playing basketball in junior high school,” said Ozaki. “However, because of my talent as a runner, even in junior high school, I was recruited to race in track meets. In junior high school, I realised that the effort I put in translates directly to results in track and field, and my fascination with the sport started to grow. So I wanted to run track in high school.”
In the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games Yuko Arimori won the women’s marathon bronze medal. Ozaki, who was in ninth grade at the time, saw the race on TV and was duly impressed by Arimori’s performance. Such an experience is also responsible for Ozaki’s increased enthusiasm toward running.
Upon graduation from junior high school, Ozaki was recruited by Yasuo Ishizuka, of Soyo high school, in Kanagawa prefecture, a well-known track powerhouse. Ishizuka, who was coaching distance runners in Soyo high, saw Ozaki race when she was a senior in junior high school and invited her to join his team.
Ozaki recalls her years in high school. “It was very hard for me in the beginning because I could not keep up with my team-mates in training,“ she said. “I also did not know anything about the sport of track and field at the time. So I just put my head down and trained hard for three years.“ But she never ran in the national high school championships.
“My best time in high school was 2:19.07 for 800m and 17:51.89 for 5000m,” said Ozaki. “My best championships’ placing in high school was seventh at 800m in Kanagawa prefectural championships when I was a senior. Had I placed in the top six in the prefectural championships, I could have made the district final, but although I was leading with 100m to go, six runners passed me in the home-straight, which was my biggest disappointment in high school.”
In the fall of 1999, even with impending high school graduation, Ozaki was unsure of her career path. “My thoughts were inclined toward continuing with the sports, but my results were not good enough for a career in running, so I was not sure what to do,” she said.
Ishizuka introduced Ozaki to Sachiko Yamashita, the coach of Dai-ichi Life Insurance track team. Yamashita won the women’s marathon silver medal in the 1991 World Championships and followed it up with fourth place in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. In short, Yamashita, her country’s first World Championships medallist, was one of the pioneers in the sport when the Japanese women distance runners started to emerge as a world power.
After spending a year as a running coach, in 1995 Yamashita became a coach/leader at Dai-ichi Life Insurance track team, the first female coach/leader of corporate sponsored track team. In 1997, her protegee, Makiko Ito, won the Tokyo International Women’s Marathon. Ishizuka’s introduction of Ozaki to Yamashita proved decisive for Ozaki’s athletics career.
“Because my first conversation with coach Yamashita was an inspirational one, I wished to join her team,” said Ozaki. “She was cheerful and has a positive outlook on life. I could agree with everything she said, and thus I was confident that everything would be OK if I ran in her team. That is how I decided to join Dai-ichi Life Insurance and run for coach Yamashita. My impression of her has not changed since.
“Before I joined the corporate track team I did not realise the difficulty associated with it,” laughs Ozaki. “After I joined I found that my team-mates were in a different league. Team training was at different level. For example, the hardest training session I was doing in high school was part of the morning training session for the team. It was hard just to keep up with my team-mates in training. So, I just trained hard with the goal of being the best runner in the team.
“Six month after I joined the Dai-ichi track team, Naoko Takahashi won the gold in the Sydney Olympics. She became my idol and I dreamed of running in the Olympics and World Championships someday, which has been my inspiration since then.”
Ozaki joined Dai-ichi Life Insurance track team with the hope of running the marathon one day, but it took eight long years before she realised her goal. Yamashita explains the reason for Ozaki’s slow progress: “For the first few years after she joined the team, Ozaki was not very healthy. She caught cold all the time, and was often plagued with stress fractures and anemia. So she was not able to extend her racing distance.
“Meanwhile, Ozaki ran mainly 1500m and 5000m as well as the first stage (6.6km) of the All Japan women’s corporate team ekiden championships. She slowly extended the distance to 10,000m and then to the half marathon. In retrospect, that may have been the right thing to do. Ozaki is always dedicated to the sport, and has always done what she had to do. For example, if she has an injury problem, she works patiently with rehabilitation, and even when she is in great shape, she won’t be over-confident.
“This is not so easy to do in reality. She has a rare talent. So I wondered about her evolution after she gained more endurance, speed and confidence. In short, I was looking forward to her future.“
Ozaki’s progress may have been slow, but it was steady, obvious in her performances at the national championships – 10th in both 1500m and 5000m in 2002, 12th at 5000m in 2003, 8th at 5000m in 2004, 9th at 5000m and 11th at 10,000m in 2005, 6th at 5000m and 4th at 10,000m in 2006, 7th at 5000m and 6th at 10,000m in 2007 and 10th at 5000m and 5th at 10,000m in 2008.
After a few years, Ozaki, who started her track career as relative unknown, was seen among the leaders in track races. Fans started to recognise her. She recorded a 5000m best of 15:28.55 in 2004 and a 10,000m best of 31:47.23 in 2005. In 2006, she was 19th at the long course race (8km) at the World Cross Country Championships in Fukuoka. In 2007, she was 13th over the half marathon distance in the World Road Running Championships. Gradually she showed her aptitude for longer distances.
The Nagoya International Women’s Marathon, in March 2008, was the venue for Ozaki‘s long awaited marathon debut. The race was also a qualifying event for the Beijing Olympic marathon team. “I was not thinking about time,“ said Ozaki. “Rather, thinking only about placing high, I was ready to cover any move.” Although Yurika Nakamura got away from her, Ozaki was able to outrun Yuri Kano (7th, 2009 World Championships, Berlin) to finish second with 2:26:19.
It was a good marathon debut. Ozaki said that she was relieved immediately after the race. However, as Nakamura, five years her junior, was attracting all the attention, Ozaki came to realise the difference between winning and finishing second by a mere 28 seconds. Ozaki needed the race of redemption and decided to run the 2008 Tokyo International Women’s Marathon in November.
The race, with a history dating back to 1979, was instrumental in the development of the women’s marathon in Japan, but the 30th edition was to be the last. The course was essentially the same as that used for the 1991 World Championships, where Yamashita had won silver. Through the summer, Ozaki trained hard for Tokyo at high altitude in Boulder, Colorado. She worked especially hard on running uphill, because the race ends with a steep rise, which was her weakness at the time.
In October, as the final preparation for the race, Ozaki trained over the tough cross country course in Aso mountain. She was ready for her second marathon, for Ozaki was in better shape than before her first.
The race was a qualifyier for the World Championships in Berlin, and Yoko Shibui, a former national marathon record holder (2:19:41) and the current national 10,000m record holder (30:48.89), had also entered. Yamashita, who has always advocated development of speed for the marathon runner, told Ozaki to stay with Shibui, who had announced that she would go out fast from the start. Yamashita thought it would be good experience for Ozaki.
“It may not be possible to stay with Shibui all the way, but I told Ozaki to stay with her even if it meant hitting the wall,” said Yamashita. “Anyone who can run 10,000m in 31 minutes should be able to run 3:20 per kilometre pace in the marathon provided she has trained properly. Since I expect Ozaki to run a 2:20 marathon eventually, I wanted her to experience such a pace in a race situation. If Shibui was going to push the pace, this would be a great opportunity for Ozaki to experience such a pace.”
As expected, Shibui took the lead immediately to push the pace. Ozaki, along with two other runners, stayed with Shibui through 7km (the 5km split was a fast 16:23), at which point Ozaki, along with Yuri Kano, fell back to run with a controlled pace. Ozaki’s pace gradually slowed and, at 18km, she lost contact with Kano. As her pace slowed further to 17:30 for 20 to 25km, Britain’s Mara Yamauchi caught Ozaki. But Ozaki bided her time behind Yamauchi. “Since I knew from the experience that tenacity pays off when confronting bad patches, I was determined to persevere,” said Ozaki.
Soon Ozaki’s pace started to pick up. She covered the next 5km (up to 30km) in 17:06, and then in pursuit of the leaders, Ozaki left Yamauchi behind at 33km. At 35km, Ozaki was 17 seconds behind the second placed Kano and 58 seconds behind leader Shibui.
Ozaki was on a roll. She steadily closed the gap and passed Kano at 37.8km. Next, she passed Shibui at 38.4km. Ozaki covered the uphill 5km from 35 to 40km in 17:14 and the final 2.195km in 7:13. Ozaki improved her personal best, set in her debut marathon, by nearly three minutes to 2:23:30. By winning the race, Ozaki also clinched the berth for the World Championships team.
It had taken Ozaki ten long years after joining Dai-ichi Life Insurance track team to make her first World Championships team. She was Yamashita’s first protegee to make the World Championships team. Unfortunately, Ozaki’s build-up for Berlin did not start auspiciously. She injured her lower back and spent the month of April recuperating. She started to run in May and her real marathon training began in Boulder in June.
“Usually, I still do my cross training even when injured but, since my injury was with my lower back, I concentrated on regaining good health,” said Ozaki. “Initially, I was thinking only about lining up at the start in good health. However, after resuming my training, it went better than expected, and I did not have to be concerned with delays with my training schedule.”
Starting at the end of July, Ozaki’s final training venue for Berlin was in Kumamoto, the usual site of the team’s training camp. In her final 30km run three weeks before the marathon, Ozaki’s team-mates took turn pacing her as instructed by Yamashita. The purpose of the run was to train for a varying pace. Yamashita claimed “it was the training made possible only because we are a corporate track team.”
Yamashita explained Ozaki’s training before Berlin. “The 30km run was considered to be a race simulation. I gave each member of the team instructions to change the pace constantly, which I kept secret from Ozaki. After recuperating from the lower back problem, 95% of training was completed satisfactorily, and thus Ozaki was ready to produce good results. Furthermore, the contribution from the trainer and nutritionist must not be forgotten. It was the culmination of team effort that made Ozaki’s medal possible.”
The women’s marathon in Berlin was held on the final day of the World Championships. Japanese athletes had yet to win a medal. Although Yukifumi Murakami won the bronze medal in the men’s Javelin during the afternoon, going into the final day the women’s marathon, which started in the morning, was thought to be the last realistic chance for a medal.
The Japanese team consisted of Ozaki, Yoko Shibui, Yukiko Akaba, Yoshiko Fujinaga and Yuri Kano. However, three days before the race, Shibui, who was considered to be the best Japanese, withdrew due to an injury, which left four runners without global championships experience at the marathon in the team. Furthermore, they were all virtually marathon novices, for they all made marathon debut after 2007.
Many of the best marathon runners in the world missed the race in Berlin. Kenya’s Catherine Ndereba, who has won a medal in each global championships since 2003, Irina Mikitenko, the German gold medal hopeful, and Paula Radcliffe, the World record holder, from Britain, were all absent.
The first 5km was covered in a slow 17:43, and although the pace picked up gradually, the lead pack remained large. “Initially, I thought the pace was slow, but since I wanted to conserve my energy until 30km, on second thoughts the pace was about right,” said Ozaki. Yamashita, who estimated Ozaki to be in about 2:25 to 2:26 shape, observed: “She is running with a good rhythm.”
The real racing started past 25km when Nailiya Yulamanova (Russia) took the lead and covered 25 to 30km in 17:02. The lead pack stretched out, and some runners were unable to keep up with the pace. The pace further increased to 16:31 for the 5km segment between 30 and 35km, which reduced the lead pack to four runners. Then, just before 35km, Yulamanova dropped off the pace, which left Bai Xue, Ozaki and Aselefech Mergia (Ethiopia) in front.
Bai Xue had won the 5000m and 10,000m at the 2005 Asian Championships, so Ozaki did not want the race to be decided in the final sprint. Explaining her strategy, she said: “I saw other runners straining, so I figured it is better to make my move early.” Thus Ozaki kept on pushing the pace, and was able to drop Mergia at 40km. However, Bai Xue was able to stay with Ozaki and after 41km she surged hard, leaving Ozaki behind.
At the end Ozaki finished second, ten seconds behind Bai Xue with 2:25:25. Ozaki won a silver medal, which was the 10th medal for Japanese women at the World Championships.
“I have run three marathons so far and was successful in all three,” said Ozaki after the 2009 World Championships. “Also, I have yet to experience the wall at the marathon. However, since I was unable to shake off my competition in the final stage of the race in Berlin, I need to work on making a decisive surge. I can run faster. A sub 2:20 marathon is an obvious goal for me. For that, I need more speed as well as endurance.”
Ozaki then decided to run the 2010 London Marathon. After running several ekiden races during the winter, Ozaki competed in the 2010 All Japan Corporate team half marathon championships in Yamaguchi on 21 March, one month before the London Marathon. She finished second to Flomena Cheyech of Kenya and Uniqlo team with 1:10:06, and thus gaining selection for the Japanese team for the IAAF World Half Marathon Championships.
Because of the volcanic eruption in Iceland just before the marathon, which disrupted air traffic throughout Europe, Ozaki’s travel to London was delayed till the last minute. In London, although she stayed with the leaders in the early part of the race, Ozaki’s pace dropped after the half way. The 5km segments from 25-30km, 30-35km, and 35-40km required 19:09, 19:37 and 19:50, respectively. Even though Ozaki did finish the race, her time (2:32:26) as well as her finishing position (13th) were the worst of her marathon career.
“She had not completely recovered from her training and thus was not in top form for the marathon. I think Ozaki now realizes that she must be in top shape to run well in the marathon. In that sense, the race was not a total waste, but a good learning experience. I think it is important for her to experience such failure once, so she can learn from it,” recalls Yamashita.
After resting the entire month of May, Ozaki resumed her training but stayed away from racing throughout the summer. She did not even race at the national championships. During July and August, Ozaki trained in Boulder, Colorado, concentrated on rebuilding her endurance base. Ozaki’s first track race of the season was on October 1, at the national sports festival, where she ran the 5000m, and finished fourth with 15:35.95.
“The London marathon was a turning point of her marathon career, and good starting point for the two years leading up to the London Olympic marathon race. At the present time, Ozaki may not be in the marathon shape, but she is rounding into good half marathon form,” assesses Yamashita. “It all depends on the race day’s weather, but I would consider a half marathon personal best (currently 1:09:26 from 2007) will be a satisfactory performance at the IAAF World Half Marathon Championships.” Thus spoke Sachiko Yamashita looking forward to Ozaki’s next race.
5000m: 15:28.55 (2004)
10,000m: 31:47.23 (2005)
Half Marathon: 1:09:26 (2007)
Marathon: 2:23:30 (2008)
5000m/10,000m/Half Marathon/Marathon: 2001: 15:54.82/-/-/-; 2002: 15:39.63/-/-/-; 2003: 15:46.63/-/-/-; 2004: 15:28.55/32:19.30/-/-; 2005: 15:31.91/31:47.23/-/-; 2006: 15:43.17/31:48.92/-/-; 2007: 15:33.40/32:13.95/1:09:26/-; 2008: 15:40.54/32:01.07/1:09:30/2:23:30; 2009: -/-/-/2:25:25; 2010:15:35:95/-/1:10:06/2:32:26
2006: 19th World Cross Country Championships (8km)
2007: 13th World Road Running Championships (Half Marathon)
2008: 2nd Nagoya International Women's Marathon
2008: 1st Tokyo International Women's Marathon
2009: 2nd World Championships
2010: 13th London Marathon
Prepared by Ikumi Kodama for the IAAF ‘Focus on Athletes’ project. Copyright IAAF 2010.