by Brett Larner
With Naoko Takahashi's abrupt announcement of her retirement today less than three weeks before her planned entry in the Tokyo International Women's Marathon it's worth taking a minute to look back at some of the achievements which made her Japan's greatest marathon runner, male or female, and one of its most beloved public figures.
Gold Medal - Sydney Olympics 9/24/00
By far the accomplishment for which Takahashi is most respected in Japan is winning the country's first-ever Olympic marathon gold medal. Japan had scored several men's and women's silver and bronze Olympic marathon medals over the years, but until Sept. 24, 2000 no Japanese runner had ever taken the top position. Takahashi, accompanied partway by teammates Ari Ichihashi and Eri Yamaguchi, dominated the race, setting an Olympic record of 2:23:14 which still stands. She became an instant icon in Japan, achieving unprecedented respect for a woman in the public eye and winning the National Honor Award, a tremendous distinction usually given to Japan's greatest writers, musicians and other luminaries.
World Record and First-Ever Sub-2:20 - Berlin Marathon 9/30/01
Takahashi's last four marathons leading into Berlin '01 showed that she had phenomenal speed. In Berlin she was perfect, clocking 2:19:46 to go down in history with the first-ever women's sub-2:20 mark. Her accomplishment was somewhat obscured when Catherine Ndereba of Kenya ran 2:18:47 a week later in Chicago, but the fact remains that it was Takahashi who broke this barrier first. Takahashi became and remains, along with American Joan Benoit-Samuelson, one of only two women to win Olympic gold and set the world record.
Gold Medal and World Record for Women-Only Marathon - Asian Games, Bangkok, 12/6/98
This race is often forgotten next to Takahashi's achievements in Sydney and Berlin but it is at least their equal. Takahashi, running only her third marathon, ran 2:21:47, alone, in temperatures of 32 C (90 F) and tropical humidity, at a time when the world record was 2:20:47. She finished more than 13 minutes ahead of the next runner having run without pacemakers or rivals, setting the fifth-fastest time ever by a woman and the fastest-ever for a women-only race and breaking her own nine-month old national record by 4:01. Think about how much emphasis was placed on Samuel Wanjiru's 2:06:32 Olympic gold medal-winning run in Beijing having been run in moderate humidity and temperatures which peaked at 30 C (86 F) late in the race, the fact that as great as it was, it was 2 minutes 6 seconds off the world record at the time, the fact that Wanjiru had strong competitors to keep him going until late in the race, and the fact that once he was alone he dropped significantly off-pace in the heat. Then think about Takahashi's Bangkok gold medal run again.
National Record - Nagoya International Women's Marathon, 3/8/98
Takahashi set her first national record in her second marathon, winning the 1998 Nagoya International Women's Marathon in 2:25:48 at age 24. It was not a spectacular time by the standards of the era, but it was a sign of things to come from the Takahashi-Koide combination. Yoshio Koide was already one of Japan's top marathon coaches, but he recognized what he saw in Takahashi and put everything he had into her training, secretly mortgaging the house where he, his wife and his children lived in Japan in order to finance a home in Boulder, Colorado in which Takahashi could live by herself and train without concerns or distractions.
Nagoya '00 and Berlin '02 Wins
Takahashi qualified for Sydney with a course-record 2:22:19 win at the 2000 Nagoya International Women's Marathon. After the world record she returned to Berlin the following year, winning again with a 2:21:49 timing. Everything looked on track for a medal defense at the Athens Olympics, but at the 2003 Tokyo International Women's Marathon Takahashi was 2nd in only 2:27:21, a time far too slow to qualify her for the Japanese Olympic team. She was passed over by the selection committee, and shortly afterward Takahashi made the suprising annoucement that she was parting ways with Koide.
Comeback Win, Tokyo International Women's Marathon, 11/20/05
Takahashi did much on her own to create a new model for Japanese marathoners, particularly women, gathering her own coaching and support staff and collecting sponsorship money through product endorsements and commercial appearances rather than running on a corporate team and having to spend significant time and energy on ekidens. Unfortunately she was unable to regain the same level she attained through Koide's coaching, and her running declined even as her popularity ascended. The only bright spot in Takahashi's solo career was a surprise win at the 2005 Tokyo International Women's Marathon, which she ran in a strong 2:24:39. The comeback win secured her place in the Japanese public's heart, but it marked the end.
The following year she ran 2:31:22 in Tokyo while trying to qualify for the 2007 World Championships team. Absent from the 2007 season, she made one last attempt, returning to the 2008 Nagoya International Women's Marathon to try for the Beijing Olympics team. She finished 27th in 2:44:18. Shortly afterward she announced that she would run all the 2008-2009 season big three women's marathons, Tokyo, Osaka and Nagoya, but on Oct. 28 announced that her summer training had been inadequate, and that she was through.
Takahashi's decision to split with Koide was her own and cannot be criticized, but it's hard to look at her career and not see it as a mistake. It's also regrettable that the world never got to see her live up to the promise of her three biggest performances and follow through with challenges at world-class races such as London, Chicago, Boston or New York. Nevertheless, what she did achieve in the races detailed above was enough to surpass Japan's legendary Toshihiko Seko to become the country's most respected marathoner and one of the very best, male or female, the world has ever seen.
A photo retrospective of Takahashi's career can be seen here.
(c) 2008 Brett Larner
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