"Through my style of canoeing, I want to show people the excitement of canoe slalom and the passion and dedication I've put into it."
This is HANEDA Takuya's goal for the upcoming Olympic Games Tokyo 2020.
Haneda won bronze at the Rio 2016 Games, at his third Olympic Games, but it was also Japan’s first ever medal in Olympic Canoe. In an instant, Haneda was catapulted into fame and canoe slalom suddenly became hugely popular in Japan, where the Olympic and Paralympic Games will take place this year.
Everyone involved in the sport wanted greater recognition for canoe and Haneda smiled as he described the changes that have occurred since his bronze medal. He recalled all the sacrifices that he went through in his journey to the podium.
“Athletes endure many things in their journey to an Olympic Games [sacrificing a personal life]. I felt that what I achieved in Rio was the reward for all of the effort that I had put in up until that time,” he said.
“So many people have become interested in canoe slalom since I won that medal. They also recognise me, so my desire to meet their expectations has become so much stronger.”
Koki Nagahama/Getty Images
In 2019, the Kasai Canoe Slalom Centre was constructed in Tokyo’s Edogawa Ward as a venue for the Olympic Games. It was the man-made course that Haneda had always been dreaming to have in Japan and it had finally become a reality.
"This means a lot to me."
“This is really going to raise awareness of the sport in Japan, and it will give athletes a much better chance of improving their skills. It’s fantastic!” he said.
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Moving to Slovakia
Canoeing is not a major sport in Japan, and they usually lag behind the leaders of the sport which are usually dominated by European countries.
With that in mind, and straight after graduating from high school, an 18-year old Haneda made the decision to base himself in Slovakia - one of the strongest countries in canoe slalom.
Being more than 8,792km far from Japan, Haneda faced many difficulties with a country where most Japanese citizens would not be very familiar with. However he also knew that there was a limit to what could be achieved by training in Japan. In order to improve himself as an athlete, he took the plunge.
"I had no choice but to go," Haneda said.
“In canoeing, just because you have ability doesn’t mean that you will improve.”
“For example, even if you do have the ability, if there is no coach in Japan – if there are no man-made courses in Japan – then your talent just disappears; this happens all the time. This is a real handicap for us as canoeists, which is why I had to base myself in Slovakia. The environment really is that much different.”
Tokyo 2020 / Toshio OKADA
The right environment that Haneda had been seeking was in Slovakia.
There were coaches and man-made courses, while other sports including cross-country skiing, basketball and football were also included in his training programme. It surprised Haneda because this wasn’t the norm in Japan.
The changes did not only impact the way he trained but to his personal life too. He had to get used to new dietary habits and language, and as time went on, became accustomed to his new environment - even so far as attending university and graduating in Slovakia.
Reflecting on his time in Europe, he’s learnt an important lesson.
“There were many difficulties, but I think I was able to develop the strength to overcome them. I learned that if you have the desire to win, there is nothing you can’t do,” Haneda said.
Tokyo 2020 / Toshio OKADA
Reading the flow of the water
Since the Rio 2016 Games, he has been working on what he considers to be his weak point: his physical strength. While tackling this issue he was unable to achieve a podium finish at the World Championships last year, but this does not worry him with the Olympics fast approaching.
The Olympic Games course requires a much higher level of skill, but he believes that this will suit his strengths, his technique and level of agility.
“You don’t use your own strength,” he explained.
“The secret to canoeing is using the flow of the water to see how fast you can move the canoe down the course. If you train every day, then you will be able to effectively grasp the flow of the water. There are cycles in the water. It bounces off itself, it hits the walls; every instant is different. It is important to develop the ability to read, see and feel those patterns.”
Since canoe slalom is an individual sport, other than the water, athletes are only fighting against themselves which requires immense concentration and mental strength.
“I think it’s important to see yourself and your surroundings from a bird’s eye perspective,” Haneda said.
“Mental basically means emotional, and if you become emotional, then you waver mentally. By seeing yourself objectively, and seeing your surroundings from a bird’s eye perspective, you can see what you need to do at that time and refocus.
“Of course, I become emotional at times. I get upset when I lose and I’m happy when I win. However by consciously seeing things objectively at those times, and by analysing, I think it is possible to learn to control such emotions.”
(Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)
His fourth Olympic Games
In order to continue evolving as an athlete, Haneda is always looking for new challenges. Currently he travels around the world competing and training.
“I’m homeless!” he said smiling.
But Haneda is used to it by now. With a suitcase in one hand and his canoe in the other, he is always going somewhere. The reason that he continues living like this is because the upcoming Olympic Games is special to him as it will be his fourth time participating and is also being held in his home country.
“From the standpoint of an athlete, there’s no greater blessing than to compete in an Olympic Games in their own country,” Haneda said.
“It’s something that is beyond our control, and I guess it is all a matter of luck. I feel really lucky to be able to compete on my home turf.”