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Former Olympic Marathoner Yumi Kokamo Returns to Osaka After 17 Years

http://www.asahi.com/sports/spo/SEB200901210005.html

translated by Brett Larner

Among the field at the Jan. 25 Osaka International Women's Marathon will be an amateur runner with a special memory. Her name is Yumi Matsunaga, 37, formerly the runner known as 1992 Barcelona Olympics marathoner Yumi Kokamo. After her moment of glory in winning Osaka at age 20, her life changed dramatically. Having passed through scores of setbacks and trials, this mother of two comes back to this year's Osaka to take a step forward in her new running life.

Officially entered as an honorary guest runner, this will be Matsunaga's sixth full marathon, but along with her debut at the 1992 Osaka and the Barcelona Olympics it will be only her third time running in 'serious mode.' "I'm going to run as though it were my first marathon," Matsunaga says with a gentle smile.

Seventeen years ago in Osaka Matsunaga, a second-year corporate runner with Team Daihatsu, won her debut marathon. Her time of 2:26:26 was at the time a new Japanese national record and the debut marathon world record, clinching her a spot on the Olympic team in one single shot. Behind her smile for the camera, the newborn Cinderella Girl's heart was dark and heavy. "The idea of having to keep right on with hard training for the Olympics really broke my spirits," she recalls.

Matsunaga couldn't force herself through her workouts, and she thought about quitting. In Barcelona she was 29th in 2:58:18. "I started to be afraid of running," she says. The following year she quit Daihatsu and enrolled in Tandai University. After graduating she again took up professional running, joining Fukuoka-based Team Iwataya, but in 1999 the sponsor withdrew its support and the team disbanded, forcing Matsunaga to retire for the second time.

After getting married in Fukuoka and having two children, fate stepped in to reunite Matsunaga with her past. While out jogging for exercise near Fukuoka University one day in June, 2006, Matsunaga bumped into her Iwataya-era coach, Morio Shigematsu, 68, by chance. As the two talked, Matsunaga's mind began to race. "Coach, there are still things I regret not doing," she told him. "I think I can still make a comeback."

In January, 2007 Matsunaga began training again under Shigematsu's supervision, with her father back home in Hyogo Prefecture helping to take care of her children to give her more time to train. In February last year the pair decided on Osaka for her return. Building a team of nine women around Matsunaga, on Jan. 22 Coach Shigematsu announced the formation of his new Fukuoka-based First Dream AC. Matsunaga will run Osaka wearing the team's brand-new uniform.

In Osaka Matsunaga's target is to reach the 2:40 range, with her main goal being to break her Barcelona time. "If I can't beat that," she reflects, "then I'm not making any progress. I want to be shooting for target times until I'm 40." She is well on her way to a successful comeback.

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