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Spotlight on Ari Ichihashi

, the 1999 Japanese Athlete of the Year
K. Ken Nakamura for the IAAF 

At the 1999 World Championships in Seville, Ari Ichihashi was the marathon silver medallist with 2:27:02, setting a personal best despite the oppressive Andalusian weather. This performance earned her a berth on the Japanese Olympic marathon team and the title of 1999 Japanese Athlete of the Year.

She was born on November 22, 1977 in the Tokushima district, where she attended Oasa junior high school in Naruto. Coincidentally another world class marathon runner, Harumi Hiroyama (second in the 2000 Osaka Ladies marathon in 2:22:56) is also an alumna of that school. In fact, Ichihashi while she was a freshman at Oasa junior high school met Hiroyama (at the time called Harumi Suzuki), who was visiting her former coach Kazuyuki Saijo. Recalling their first meeting, Hiroyama gave her impressions of Ichihashi, "She was a very active girl."

Ichihashi was a precocious talent, finishing fifth at the 800m in the Japanese junior high school championships in 1992. She was also fourth at the 1500m at the Junior Olympics, competitions for 7th to 10th grade students. Coach Saijo sensed Ichihashi's potential for longer distances, and Ichihashi ran several 3000m in her senior year. In 1992, without proper training, Ichihashi ran 9:38.3, the fastest 3000m of the year by a junior high school student.

In the spring of 1992, the JAAF (Japanese Amateur Athletics Federation) established an experimental program whereby athletes trained with long-term goals as the main objective. In this program, the same coach guides the athletes after graduation from junior high school. For this purpose, in 1992, the JAAF established a track club, Tokyo Runners Club, with Yasunori Hamada as coach and another athlete Yoshiko Ichikawa. Hamada, a former 2:13:04.2 marathon runner, coached Sachiko Yamashita to a marathon silver medal at the 1991 World Championships.

In 1992, when Ichihashi was a senior in Oasa junior high school, her father read a newspaper article about the Tokyo Runners Club. Without consulting anybody, he called the JAAF office and asked coach Hamada to meet his daughter Ari. Recalling the impression of their first meeting in November of 1992, Hamada said, "She was not running as tall as she is now, but she already had a beautiful style."

But Ichihashi was in dilemma. The National Games was coming to her native Naruto, and she was the great hope of her home town, who she was expected to represent. But if she joined the Tokyo Track club, she would live in Tokyo, and will not be able to compete for Tokushima prefecture.

Finally, in the spring of 1993, she chose to join the Tokyo Runners Club. Ichihashi is a woman of strong character, and realising what was best for her, she was able to make this difficult decision.

Unlike most elite runners in Japan, Ichihashi never ran for her high school track team. All her training was done with Yoshiko Ichikawa under the guidance of Yasunori Hamada.

From the beginning, Ichihashi has developed with long-term goals in mind. For athlete and coach the ultimate objective is a medal at the 2004 Olympics Games. After observing Ichihashi's running style, the coach noted her suitability for longer distances. This suited Ichihashi who after watching the 1991 World Championships marathon on TV as a 13 year old, had always hoped to be a marathon runner eventually.

With the marathon as her objective, Ichihashi concentrated on the 1500m in 1993 to work on her speed, which her coach considered vital even for marathon running. The other goal for the first year was to modify Ichihashi's running form. Hamada thought Ichihashi should 'run tall.', but this would change gradually as the distances she ran were increased.

Since she was not running for her high school team, her main competitions were with older runners, hence she was not winning. Recalling those days Ichihashi said recently, "When I started running for the Tokyo Runners club, I was running near the back of the pack most of the time. It was not fun, but I knew that it was necessary to be a good marathon runner. I never regretted my decision to join the Tokyo Runners club."

She gradually moved up in distance. In 1994 she concentrated on the 3000m, and then in 1995, during her senior year in high school, she set a 5000m best of 15:49.92 (then the second fastest performance by a high school student) and a 10,000m best of 32:48.03 - still a high school record – in her debut at the distance.

In December of 1995, she made her a half marathon debut in Okayama. Disappointed with her result of 1:15:00, she stepped up the training throughout 1996 and at the 1997 Tokyo half marathon, she ran 1:09:23. It was the eighth fastest half marathon performance in history by a Japanese woman. Coach Hamada felt that she was ready for the marathon, and two months later in Nagoya, she made an auspicious debut where she came fourth in 2:29:50. It was the fastest Japanese marathon performance for a nineteen-year-old.

In July, she followed it up with a win at the Sapporo half marathon in 1:11:03, showing her adaptability to adverse weather. Her second marathon at the 1997 Tokyo Ladies marathon was awaited with high expectations. She ran very aggressively, perhaps too aggressively; covering Fatuma Roba’s every move, wasting too much energy in the early stages of the race. She slowed down dramatically after 35km (her 35km to 40km split was 19:41), but most marathon experts did not see her race as a failure. She was praised for her aggressiveness, as well as for her beautiful running form, by Susumu Takahashi, former coach to 1968 Olympic marathon silver medallist Kenji Kimihara.

After winning the Sapporo half marathon for the second consecutive year (1:11:46) in June, she returned to Tokyo in 1998, and finished a close second behind 1993 World marathon champion Junko Asari. In the race Ichihashi attempted to outkick Asari from 90m to the finish, but Asari prevailed. After the race Ichihashi said, "I thought I could hold her off." Despite finishing second, that performance won her a spot on the 1999 World Championships team.

Leading up to the World Championships in Seville Ichihashi worked on improving her kick whilst training at altitude in St Moritz with Yoshiko Ichikawa. In Sevilla, when Fatuma Roba surged ahead at 35km, Ichihashi was still confident. After the race she said, "I was sure that Roba’s surge would not last. I knew I could eventually catch her." Roba was 50m ahead at one point, but Ichihashi along with Jong Song-Ok were able to reel Roba in by 38km. When the race came down to between her and Jong Song-Ok, Ichihashi remembering her training sessions in St Moritz, was confident that she could outkick Jong. But just before the runners entered the stadium, Jong Song-Ok surged away from Ichihashi, and the Japanese had to be content with second place.

In the past, she has learned from her experiences in each race and she will be ready for whoever attempts to surge in the last 1km of the race in Sydney.

"My ultimate goal is the 2004 Olympics in Athens, but along the way I would like to win everything I can," says Ichihashi. She continues, "I hope to be like Katrin Dörre, with a long running career." Her coach Yasunori Hamada, who has even loftier plans for Ichihashi, said, "I want Ichihashi to be a runner who defines an era." This is just the beginning for Ari Ichihashi.

Complete Marathon performances
2:29:50 Nagoya 4th March 9, 1997
2:31:25 Tokyo 6th Nov 30, 1997
2:28:29 Tokyo 2nd Nov 15, 1998
2:27:02 Sevilla 2nd Aug 29, 1999

Half Marathon PR: 1:09:23 (1997)
10,000m PR: 32:17.71 (1998)