Heaven and hull for Ja­pan’s kayak­ing monk

Kuwait Times - - SPORTS -

Ris­ing silently be­fore dawn to slip on his monas­tic robes and be­gin the solemn du­ties of a Bud­dhist monk, Kazuki Yazawa is not your av­er­age Olympic ath­lete. Bow­ing his shaved head in prayer five times a day as part at the an­cient Zenkoji Daikan­jin Tem­ple, Yazawa is so com­mit­ted to his faith very few peo­ple would recog­nise him as Ja­pan’s top ca­noeist.

But Yazawa, who fin­ished 11th in the men’s kayak slalom at the Rio Olympics ear­lier this year, is con­tem­plat­ing the holy grail of the 2020 Tokyo Games. “Of course I want to com­pete in Tokyo,” the 27-yearold told AFP in an in­ter­view as the early morn­ing sun crept above the roof of his tem­ple in Nagano pre­fec­ture. “It will be the only chance in my life to com­pete at an Olympics in Ja­pan,” added Yazawa, who also rep­re­sented his coun­try at the Bei­jing and Lon­don Games. “But it’s pretty hard to win an Olympic medal if you also hap­pen to be a monk. To set your heart on win­ning a medal, you have to be com­pletely fo­cused. Oth­er­wise it’s im­pos­si­ble.”

Still get­ting to grips with the priest­hood’s aus­tere way of life, Yazawa squeezes in kayak train­ing each af­ter­noon, pulling on a T-shirt and shorts be­fore hurtling down a nearby river at break­neck speed. The fun-lov­ing priest, who fre­quently posts grin­ning self­ies on In­sta­gram, flirted with re­tire­ment af­ter a Ja­panese record ninth-place fin­ish at the 2012 Lon­don Olympics as his thoughts turned to find­ing a steady job for the fu­ture.


In­stead he was per­suaded to swap his life as an ath­lete on the pro­fes­sional cir­cuit for a room with a pew. “I didn’t have an epiphany-I sim­ply wasn’t in­ter­ested in be­com­ing a priest,” said Yazawa, who took the ad­vice of the lo­cal ca­noe fed­er­a­tion boss Kenei Koyama, him­self a priest. “(But) I re­ally looked up to my teacher (Koyama) and wanted to be­come like him, some­one who will be there to help peo­ple. “Ob­vi­ously now I don’t have enough time for my kayak train­ing but I get to en­joy the sport in its purest form,” he added. “I still want to win though. That hasn’t changed.”

Yazawa, whose younger sis­ter Aki also qual­i­fied for Rio, ad­mits his se­cond call­ing got off to a dif­fi­cult start. “The first two months of monas­tic train­ing were in the moun­tains,” he said. “You wake up at 2:00 am and study un­til 10:00 am, sat with your legs crossed the whole time. The food is very ba­sic and you have to do the clean­ing. It’s tough.”

But while Yazawa can no longer spend as much time in the gym or on the wa­ter, he be­lieves he does have di­vine sup­port. “I don’t feel that be­cause I’m a priest my kayak goes any faster,” he smiles. “But I do feel that the Bud­dha is pro­tect­ing me. “You must have a goal and ded­i­cate your­self to it. If you do that, then it’s in the last split-se­cond where Bud­dha will help you,” added Yazawa, who last month cap­tured the Ja­pan Cup.

Yazawa says his faith helps make him a bet­ter ca­noeist. “I don’t do any­thing par­tic­u­larly re­li­gious be­fore I get into the ca­noe,” he said. “But I be­lieve if I focus hard enough, the Bud­dha will give me a gen­tle push on the wa­ter.” His se­nior monks woke up in the mid­dle of the night to watch live stream­ing of Yazawa’s races in Rio, fur­ther sup­port­ing him with text mes­sages and Skype calls. “We all want him to win a medal at the Tokyo Olympics,” said priest Shin­jun Denda. “We will all be ca­jol­ing him and push­ing him to com­pete.” For now reli­gion comes first for Yazawa, who in­sists he wants to race on his own terms. “I don’t want to have any re­grets,” he said, sit­ting in front of the tem­ple’s grand al­tar.

“When you come to a place like this you feel your heart re­lax. It helps con­trol your feel­ings when you’re com­pet­ing un­der pres­sure. But if you don’t con­trol your own thoughts, you won’t get any help from above.” — AFP

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