I know a guy who knows a guy who knows a guy. This is the formula I used to get invited to train in Japan for two weeks prior to the Tokyo world cup race in a few days. My first Kelowna coach, Takeo Inoki, is Japanese and currently lives in Hong Kong set it all up for me, made introductions, met me at the airport and stayed a few days to make sure I’d be ok. My training schedule is flexible this year because I’m not taking any classes in Minnesota so why not train in Tokyo for a couple of weeks? Originally I was going to compete at the Hong Kong world cup and stay with Takeo and his daughter afterwards then travel to Tokyo to compete there. Plan “A” would have been six weeks in Asia instead of two….would have likely felt like I was overstaying my welcome so I shortened it up a bit.

This isn’t a travel blog so I’ll be brief….Tokyo’s Akabane-eki Inn is as good as it gets for those traveling on a budget and I’m a budget hotel expert having learned from my mistakes. I once walked over half a dozen homeless people in the hallway of the Econo lodge in Montreal and my room at the Knights Inn in Toronto looked like a crime scene from Dexter. CDN$70 get you a small private room where two steps gets you from one end to the other and four steps gets you from door to window. 70 dollars is cheap considering we’re in Tokyo, not Fargo. Staff hand out tea bags instead of chocolate chip cookies at the front desk, press buttons to operate the high tech toilets and it’s across the street from the subway giving you access to everything once you figure out the public transportation system. Everyone’s friendly and they’re obsessed with cleanliness. If you stay, tell them I sent you.

Day one after one missed flight (ylw-yvr) and ten hours Vancouver-Tokyo I felt like what you would expect I’d feel like. I woke up in the dark unsure if I’d slept a few minutes or two days. Wasn’t sure if my iphone clock was still on Kelowna time or changed automatically. Do you add or subtract 16 hours? It could have been Sunday night or Tuesday morning. I did know that I had searing pain in my shoulder. Felt like I’d been shot and was experiencing 10/10 pain. I couldn’t figure out the TV remote control because it had so many buttons all in Japanese and all I wanted to do was find out date and time. Gave up so I just rifled through my stuff looking for Advil. Sorted out the calendar/time thing and eventually got something to eat and went to the pool. Shoulder started to feel a little better after moving it around but couldn’t eat cereal with a spoon let alone negotiate chopsticks. A tough start.

Made my way to pool for a shake out the cobwebs swim. Shoulder improved after getting into the water and after first workout it was back to 100%. I blame the rock hard-paper thin hotel room mattress you might see in 17th century monasteries. Not complaining, did I mention it was only 70 dollars?

Next day was first day with Japanese national team. There they all were. Looking like any other swim team anywhere waiting to get into the water. The only difference I could tell was that if you were on deck 20 minutes before you were supposed to be there, you would be the last one. Made mental note: Punctuality is a bit of a big deal here. I wasn’t sure what was in store for me and it could have gone a few ways. In my mind I was mentally planning on having a regular old mid-season swim camp where they swam a bit in the morning, dryland stuff, nutrition video, lunch, nap, free time, swim session, dinner, Netflix, sleep, repeat the next day. Nope. 7,000 metres with tough pace times in the morning and same at night. Ohhhhhhhhh, it’s going to be one of those camps. Swim till you vomit workouts are necessary, they have their place as long as you’re not the one to throw up first. At this point at the beginning of a tough workout I usually look around and predict to myself who’s going to be the first to hurl. I had to be honest and realistically admit that this time it was probably going to be me. I’m no stranger to hard sets but considering the time difference, sleep stuff and travel recovery I worried that I just might not make it through. I did though. Everyone did. No one had to clean up anything.

Kosuke Kitajima won Olympic gold in the 200m breaststroke at the Athens Olympics in 2004 and followed it up with another gold medal at the Beijing Olympics in 2008. He was unsuccessful at his attempt at a three-peat in London finishing just out of the medals. History is kindest to generals who die on the battlefield and tip of the hat to this guy for his successes. I wrongly assumed he had retired. There he was though, almost giddy and easily happiest of all waiting to get into the water like everyone else. It would be easy to mistake him for a typical middle of the pack masters swimmer who you could rely on to know where to find the best post workout breakfast place was in any town…..and those guys are important. Once he dove in though things changed. In general, breaststrokers make the best faces mid swim. You can tell how hard they’re working by the scowl and Kitajima has the scariest workout face I’ve seen yet. He looks like he has more to prove.

My fav here is Runa Imai. Out of the water she looks like a typical middle school teenager. Runa speaks english and is just the funnest girl to be around. We more or less met when she walked up to me and stood within a centimeter of my face to see if I really wasn’t wearing makeup. I think it confused her. Note to self 2: Compared to Canada, physical boundaries are a little different here too. This girl only has one gear and it’s all out fast. She just doesn’t tire out and has a look of “is that all you got” between sets. Japanese female swimmers shave their legs all year, just like normal girls. Immediately felt self-conscious and decided I like their way better.

I’m enjoying my adventure and I’m looking forward to racing next week. I thought a Japanese training camp would be a lot different from Minnesota or Canada but there’s very few differences as far as I can tell. You get out of it what you put into it. The bathrooms are a lot cooler, they seem to have a lot more fun on TV game shows and there’s a lot more people, everywhere. I think they take their nutrition game to another level having their swimmers take a photo of their meal prior to eating and sending it somewhere to have instantly analyzed for calories-carbs-proteins etc. and adjusted as training volume increases or decreases. Seems excessive though and not sure if this is optional or mandatory. We have apps for this I think, don’t we? Chocolate bar bad, banana good. What else is there really?

There also seems to be more of a chasm between coach and athlete here. If I was at a similar camp with Minnesota I know someone could go up to Kelly in the middle of a too-tough workout and say something like “Kelly, the girls had a bit of a late night…you’re sort of killing us here…any chance you could ease up?”. 99 time out of a 100 it wouldn’t work but you could have the conversation. I couldn’t imagine me walking up mid set asking one of these guys to take his foot off the gas because I was up late watching the game show channel late into the night. The only other difference is that I don’t think there’s anything going on here that I can’t write about. I’ve written a lot of these blogs with different teams on various trips and there’s an understanding that I don’t write about things that might embarrass anyone. In other words the basic commandment that what happens on the road in a team environment stays on the road. That rule is sacrosanct everywhere but I get the sense that no one here will get into any sort of trouble or mischief and will follow all the written and unwritten rules.

I’ll wrap up with a few words on my first five weeks in Minnesota. Kelly was worried that I’d have too much free time with no classroom responsibilities and that I should find a hobby or something to occupy myself. He couldn’t have been more wrong. I have no idea where student athletes find the time to train, sleep and manage a full course load. I’m really enjoying just focusing on training and I’m sure I’ll adjust to academics next year. I moved from my apartment to a shared house and I wish I’d done this freshmen year. It’s too bad that the Gopher schedule has so many out of town dual meets this year and I can’t travel but I’ll be back at the U for the Minneapolis pro swim series next month.

Kierra Smith
Toyko Japan

October 25, 2015