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Updated 4 May 2010
Yuki YAMAZAKI, Japan (20km/50km Race Walk)
Born: 16 January 1984, Toyama Prefecture
1.77m / 65kg
Coach: Tsugumichi Suzuki
Team: Hasegawa Sports Facilities
Yuki Yamazaki, Japanese National record holder at the 50km Walk, completely dominates the event in Japan. Although Yamazaki was a soccer player in junior high school, because he liked running in Toyama Business High school he joined a track team. Having represented Toyama prefecture in national high school ekiden championships every year, Toyama Business High school is famous for their excellence in long distance running.
Yamazaki was endowed with superior endurance, but because he lacked basic physical condition as well as physical coordination, he could not find a place in the track team. In fact, Yamazaki was told by the high school coach that he had only two options – either become a track team manager or race walker. Yamazaki turned to Race Walking and found instant success.
In 2000, his junior year in high school, Yamazaki competed in the World Junior Championships, in Santiago, Chile, where he was 20th in the 10,000m Walk. A year later, in 2001, he set a National high school record, 19:35.79, at 5000m Walk. Furthermore, while winning the National Championships 20km Walk, he recorded the third best junior mark in history, 1:20:43, which was also a high school record. Internationally, Yamazaki finished fourth in the 10,000m Walk at the World Youth Championships, in Debrecen, Hungary, thus joining the elite rank.
In 2002, Yamazaki entered Juntendo University, the school well known for its excellence in track and field, and continued where he left off in high school. He improved the National junior record at the 20km Walk to 1:20:43 in 2002, and then to 1:20:38 in 2003. He finished fifth in the 10,000m Walk in the 2002 World Junior Championships in Kingston. Furthermore, in 2002 Yamazaki competed in his first senior event, the Asian Games. He was disqualified in the 20km Walk in Pusan, but at the 2003 Asian Championships, Yamazaki won the silver medal in the 20km Walk.
In 2004, Yamazaki started to compete at 50km also. First, in April, he won the 50km Walk in Wajima with 3:55:20, and was selected for the Olympic team. He was also selected to walk 20km in the Games. In Athens, although he dropped out of the 20km, Yamazaki finished 16th in the 50km. It was the highest finish by a Japanese walker at the Olympics at 50km.
A year later, in Helsinki, at the World Championships, Yamazaki finished eighth at 50km. It was the highest finish at the World Championships since the sixth place by Fumio Imamura at the 1997 Worlds.
Yamazaki made a dramatic improvement on his personal best in 2006, a year he joined Hasegawa Sports Facility. In April, he set a National record of 3:43:38 at the 50km Walk, which made him the ninth fastest walker in the world in 2006. In 2007, he won the National Championships at 50km for the third straight year with 3:47:40, his second fastest time, and was thus selected to the 2007 World Championships team.
In Osaka, until 30km, Yamazaki was contending for a medal, and after 30km for a top-eight finish. Unfortunately, he was misdirected by race officials and entered the stadium prematurely. Yamazaki was disqualified for crossing a finish line without completing the entire course. Had he finished in the top eight, he would have clinched a place in the Olympic team, and thus he was in the centre of media attention as a “Tragic athlete who missed making Olympic team because of an error by officials.”
However, Yamazaki never blamed organiser or officials. “I am disappointed for being disqualified, of course, but even without misdirection, I doubt I would have finished in the top eight,” he said. “I should have been careful about counting laps myself. I have nobody to blame but myself.”
Undaunted, Yamazaki continued to train hard and the results followed early in 2008. In January, he won the 20km Walk at the National Championships for the first time in six years. Next, in April, he won the National Championships at 50Km for the fourth straight year. In the process he set a National record of 3:41:55. Thus, for the second consecutive Olympics, Yamazaki was selected to walk both 20km and 50km in the Olympic Games.
The reason behind Yamazaki’s rapid progress in 2007 and 2008 is Tsugumichi Suzuki, who has been coaching Yamazaki since autumn of 2006. Suzuki is a former distance runner, who competed at 10,000m in the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. After retiring from competitions, Suzuki turned to coaching. His best protégée is Junko Asari, who won the gold medal at the women’s Marathon in the 1993 World Championships in Stuttgart.
Since Japan excels at distance running, Keisuke Sawaki, senior managing director of Japan AAF, reasoned that Japan should also excel at other endurance events like Race Walking. So Sawaki decided to recruit a marathon coach to guide race walkers. As it turned out Kazuo Saito, who has been coaching Yamazaki passed away suddenly, so Suzuki was recruited by Sawaki to guide Yamazaki.
However, the relationships between Suzuki and Yamazaki had a rocky start. Initially, Yamazaki, who was already an established national class race walker, rebelled against Suzuki, who had more to say than just a training program.
“In distance events, proper training is only part of what is required to be a world class athlete. When the race is over, the subtle difference in how an athlete lives his day to day life can make a difference in the final results. I think this is also true in Race Walking. This is why I gave instruction about details of nutrition, as well as how an athlete should live day to day life,” explains Suzuki. It was after he was selected to walk at the 2007 World Championships, that Yamazaki realised he could not have good results if he kept on rebelling against coach Suzuki. Their relationships started to improve.
“Since Yamazaki’s training volume before the World Championships in Osaka was double the volume before Helsinki, where he was eighth, I told him to stay with the leaders. However, since he was under my guidance for only six month at that time, I did not expect him to finish in the top eight, even without the lap miscount incident,” analyzes Suzuki.
However, staying with the leader from the start was a great learning experience for Yamazaki. He could now think about setting his sights on the medals. It is no longer a dream, but a goal.
With a medal as a goal, his training volume as well as its quality has increased further. For example, in February of 2008, Yamazaki walked over 1430km, which led to a national record in April of 2008. After clinching the team berth, Yamazaki trained even harder at high altitude in Pagosa Springs, Colorado, and was ready to walk 50km around 3:40.
However, Yamazaki came down with stomach problems just before the Olympics, and he was only seventh in 3:45:47. Although it was the highest ever finish by a Japanese walker at the Olympics, it was somewhat disappointing race for Yamazaki.
After Beijing, Yamazaki and Suzuki set a goal of medaling at the London Olympics. Yamazaki further increased training, and in October of 2008, Yamazaki improved the national record to 3:41.29. Six month later, at the national championships, he further improved the record to 3:40.12.
Looking back at the national championships race, Yamazaki analyzes: “I was able to keep 4:20 pace for each km against the head wind in the final stretch of the race and that was good. However, I really wanted to break 3:40.” Although Yamazaki expressed disappointment, Suzuki was content with the pace Yamazaki was able to keep in the final part of the race. “Next goal is to keep 4:15 pace for each km.” If successful, a time around 3:34-3:35 will be a realistic goal. The World record is 3:34:14!
Yamazaki decided to concentrate on the 50km Walk in Berlin. His training had gone well and Yamazaki was ready to walk the distance around 3:38 at the World Championships. However, because he was in such a great shape, he started the race too fast, passing the first km in 4:18. Unfortunately, this speed led to problems for Yamazaki. Because he was so fast, Yamazaki was floating at times and he received warnings around 9km and 20km. Eventually at 25km, Yamazaki was disqualified. “My rhythm was very good. I knew I couldkeep on going, but I should have kept my cool. It was my mistake to start out so fast,” recalls Yamazaki showing his disappointment after the race in Berlin.
In April 2010, Yamazaki won the national championships at 50km Walk for the seventh consecutive time. Although his winning time was only 3:46:56, he was two minutes and 33 seconds ahead of second placed Koichiro Morioka. “Until last year, I kept on saying ‘walk faster’ to Yamazaki, but in Berlin, I realised that pursuit of speed is not enough. After Berlin, I realise the importance of proper walking form. So, for example, at the training camp in the US, I had 3 international level judges checking Yamazaki’s form,” said Suzuki. Realising the difficulty of the event with judging, Yamazaki and Suzuki are making a next important step.
20kmW: 1:20:38 (2003)
50kmW: 3:40:12 NR (2009)
20km Walk/50km Walk: 2000-1:35:30/-; 2001-1:25:59/-; 2002-1:20:43(NJR)/-; 2003-1:20:38(NJR)/-; 2004-1:22:28/3:55:20; 2005-1:23:57/3:50:39; 2006-1:23:09/3:43:38(NR); 2007-1:25:07/3:47:40; 2008-1:21:18/3:41:29(NR); 2009-1:22:16/3:40:12(NR); 2010- - /3:46:56
2000 20th World Junior Championships (Santiago) (10,000mW)
2001 4th World Youth Championships (Debrecen) (10,000mW)
2002 5th World Junior Championships (Kingston) (10,000mW)
2002 DQ Asian Games (Busan) (20kmW)
2003 2nd Asian Championships (Manila) (20kmW)
2004 DNF/16th Olympic Games (Athens) (20kmW/50kmW)
2005 8th World Championships (Helsinki) (50kmW)
2007 DNF World Championships (Osaka) (50kmW)
2008 11th /7th Olympic Games (Beijing) (20kmW/50kmW)
2009 DQ World Championships (Berlin) (50kmW)
Prepared by Ikumi Kodama for the IAAF ‘Focus on Athletes’ project. © IAAF 2009-2010.