The Unrelenting Drive of Yuta Takagi: From High School Baseball to Canoe Star
Even now that he’s turned 25, Yuta Takagi still very much retains the look of a buzz-cut Japanese baseball boy. In high school, his goal had been to compete in the National High School Baseball Tournament as the 4th batter of his school team. Nowadays, however, he is on the path to becoming a star of the Japanese para canoe world—a journey about two years in the making. We asked Takagi, who tried his hand at a variety of sports after being involved in a motorcycle accident on his way to school as a first-year university student, about his thoughts on canoe and on his path to the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games.
The Frustration of a Dream Unachieved, Becoming a Driving Force
Takagi competes in Class KL1, the heaviest-impairment class in the Kayak event. The race is a mad dash of paddling for the finish line 200 meters away. It’s a sprint event, meaning it’s all about how fast you can get to that finish.
Yuta Takagi (hereafter “Takagi”): I was a catcher when I played baseball, so the bottom half of my body was always bigger than the upper half. Now though it’s the exact opposite. When I’m training for canoe in the winter, the skin on my hands will just peel off, layer after layer. And sometimes when I change up my paddling technique, I’ll get blisters in places I didn’t get them before. I’ll even get blisters in places you normally shouldn’t if you’re paddling straight, which makes me feel like I still have a long ways to go [laughs wryly].
Takagi didn’t get into this game very early. The first time he even watched a canoe race was November 2016. He’d always liked sports, and even after an accident in November 2013 left him paralyzed from the chest down, he’d looked for sports he could get into, trying his hand at wheelchair tennis, softball, and more. He’d even been a part of the Japan national team for wheelchair softball.
Takagi: For high school, I left Osaka and boarded at a school in Shizuoka to try to make it into the National High School Baseball Tournament. But we were eliminated in the second round of the prefectural tournament. It all felt so unfinished, and I just had this desire to get to the point where I was fully satisfied with a sport—any sport. And in 2016, after talking to a friend who’d competed in Rio 2016, I started thinking I wanted to compete in the Paralympic Games. That was when I started going to watch a lot of different sports, including canoe.
In the end, Takagi decided on canoe. He’d been drawn to the idea of it—of being out there in the sunlight, the wind on your face, maneuvering the paddles and moving atop the water using only your own strength.
Takagi: It was different from anything I’d experienced before, and it felt really good. I started canoe three years ago in January 2017, and my desire to compete in the Paralympics just grew stronger and stronger as time passed. At the same time, I also became confused as to what to do. After the accident, I’d quit university, studied at a trade school for interior design, and had even gotten an official job offer from a company. But I knew I wanted to delve deeper into canoe, and I knew that that was the moment for me to do it.
Takagi, having battled it out on the world stage, is evolving rapidly as a canoeist
photo by X-1
A Long-Term Plan for Winning a Gold Medal
“If I’m going to do it, I want a gold medal,” Takagi had thought. And so he’d set up a long-term plan—on that would get him qualified and eventually win a gold medal, all in the two years left until Tokyo 2020. 22-year old Takagi first set his sights on creating the right training environment, one where he could immerse himself completely in the sport.
Takagi: First, I asked the company I’d gotten the job offer from whether they could switch over to hiring me as an athlete, which would let me focus on my training. But they said it’d be difficult to do all of a sudden, so I respectfully declined their offer, and was instead hired as an athlete by a foreign semiconductor manufacturer. There were a few different kinds of employment structures, but I chose one where I’d only have to go to the office once a month, and be able to spend the rest of the time training.
As he trained, he drove himself to get results at tournaments. There’d be no international tournaments if he couldn’t get results in Japan. His first major tournament, the Japan Paracanoe Championships in September 2017, was where he’d secure his first victory.
Takagi: I still wasn’t at a level where I could compete out in the world, but my goals being what they were, I knew I needed to get 1st place. At the time, they’d make you do two races, and take your faster time. I lost the first one, so in the second race I put a weight on the kayak for better balance, and went into it that way.
He went on to win the Para Canoe Overseas Qualifiers in March 2018, thereby qualifying to represent Japan and opening his path towards the rest of the world. His first world tournament was the first installment of the ICF Canoe Sprint World Cup, held in May in Hungary. The winner, from Italy, had a time of 48.051 seconds. Takagi came in 8th, with a time of 69.090 seconds. The difference was sobering.
Takagi: I knew it was coming, but I was still stunned by how fast the rest of the world was—to the point where I couldn’t even keep count of all the things I’d need to work on. In kayaking, the basic skill you need is being able to “grip” the water with the spoon paddle—called blades—and using that movement to drive yourself forward. Things like the angle of the blade will change your grip on that water. There was a lot I had to consider, including how to tie my body to the seat, how to handle turbulent waters—all things I wouldn’t be able to figure out without trying it for myself.
His greatest issue, it seemed, was his lack of experience. He had, however, taken this into account in his plan. He worked on his paddle work—his greatest weakness at the time—by comparing videos of himself with those of canoeists he wanted to emulate.
Takagi: I knew that to go up against the rest of the world, I’d need to know what kind of equipment they used, what sort of paddling techniques they used—so I watched them, did a lot of research. And I’d use that to define the issues I had, and think about what sort of training I needed to do. So in 2018 I was also able to get better at figuring out how to improve, and get a better idea of how to observe and analyze in general.
This obviously led to a better time. Though times can fluctuate in canoe due to various conditions and even the course, he was able to improve his time—69.090 seconds in May—by eight seconds in only four months. He lost in the semi-finals in the 2019 Paracanoe World Championships and was unable to win the Tokyo Paralympic slots given to the top six countries in the rankings. With his time of 60.75 seconds, however, he’d come a hair’s breadth away from his goal of beating the 60-second mark.
Takagi: It’s been hard to get over that 60-second hurdle in official tournaments, though sometimes I’m able to do it in my training. The guy who won the World Championships was in the 45-second range, so at the very least I need to get myself down to somewhere from 50-55 seconds—at least right now. To do that, it’s obviously important to train a lot, but it’s also important to figure out how to “grip” the water properly. And I do feel like I’m finally getting there recently. I’m even starting to feel like my time will just naturally get better if I work on that muscle memory, on turning the paddle really quickly, and gain the muscle endurance to keep that going for 200 meters.
In May 2020, Takagi will get the chance to win a ticket to the Tokyo Paralympics. If he ranks within the top four at the 2020 ICF Paracanoe World Championships and Paralympic Qualifier in Germany*, he will qualify.
*It has been postponed as of April 15, 2020.
Takagi: I don’t have very much time. My training in the winter is paddling 10 kilometers every morning and afternoon, then weight training for the rest of the time. I want to structure what limited time I have really well, and win that ticket to Tokyo on my own. And of course, I’d love to be able to get results at a home-country Paralympic Games.
text by Yoshimi Suzuki
photo by Masashi Yamada