Fired from the Toyota Boshoku corporate team last month after asking its head coach for more flexibility, Ryotaro Otani, a 2013 graduate of two-time Hakone Ekiden champion Aoyama Gakuin University, took fans by surprise when he won Sunday's Japan Triathlon Union Qualifying Time Trial in one of the fastest times in the event's history.
Before becoming a runner Otani was a youth swimmer, making it to the national level before switching over to his junior high school's track and field team full-time. Alongside Takehiro Deki, at Aoyama Gakuin he was one of the star runners who helped turn AGU into national names, beating top-level men Yuta Shitara (Toyo Univ.) and Ikuto Yufu (Komazawa Univ.) to break the Fourth Stage course record and pave the way for AGU to score its first-ever Big Three University Ekiden win at the 2012 Izumo Ekiden and placing 5th on the Hakone Ekiden's most competitive stage three months later. In between he set his 10000 m best of 28:46.02, and a few months after graduating and joining Toyota Boshoku he ran a 13:51.86 best for 5000 m.
Friction with the conservative environment at Toyota Boshoku and frustration at its remote location in Aichi made it difficult for Otani to keep the same kind of enthusiasm and motivation he had felt at AGU, and he began going for long bike rides in the countryside to escape. A year ago at the Marugame Half Marathon he set his half marathon PB of 1:02:48, his best result post-university, but for the most part he was a failure as a corporate runner. Feeling the clock ticking with his 26th birthday approaching, shortly after this year's New Year Ekiden corporate national championships Otani talked to the Toyota Boshoku head coach about trying to make changes to his approach and environment. A few days later he received notification of the termination of his position on the Toyota Boshoku team.
Otani in green on the anchor stage of the 2012 Hakone Ekiden.
Otani returned to Tokyo full of questions about his own future. What next? Quit? Find another team? Everyone in the Japanese distance running industry has talked about nothing but the 2020 Tokyo Olympics marathon ever since Japan won the bid in 2013. The marathon. Is that it? All there is? Do you only have the options in life that everyone else is aiming for, that the system is pushing you toward? Or is there more to be had? What if you did something nobody had ever thought of? He had swim experience. He was used to biking over 100 km at a time. What if a top-level Hakone star made the 2020 Tokyo Olympics in triathlon?
Looking up PBs he found that among current world-class triathletes only London Olympics gold medalist Alistair Brownlee (Great Britain) had run faster for 10000 m. None of them was better for 5000 m, London bronze medalist Jonathan Brownlee (Great Britain) coming closest with a 14:00.2 road 5 km best. It was a lot of work to get done in a short time, but what if he didn't just make the team? What if he medaled? A Hakone star, medaling in the Tokyo Olympics. The dream of every runner in Japan under age 30 and of all the coaches and bureaucrats in the system. But not their way. Not in the marathon. In triathlon. The idea and its implications made Otani giddy with excitement in a way he hadn't felt since the peak of his AGU days.
トライアスロン転向の第一歩！大谷遼太郎選手が記録会でスイムとランに臨みました。ポーズはこんなですが、皆さん、かなり期待大ですよ！ pic.twitter.com/8CpF1zGcX5— スポーツナビ・陸上編集部 (@sn_gorin) March 27, 2016
On Sunday, Mar. 27, Otani took part in the official Japan Triathlon Union (JTU) Qualifying Time Trial. Clearing 4:43 for a 400 m swim and 16:25 for 5000 m on the track would meet the minimum standards for competing as an elite in official JTU Japan Cup events, his minimum goal. 4:29 twice and 15:35 would make him eligible for the ITU World Cup series. On just a few practice swim sessions Otani clocked 4:40 for the 400 m swim, then ran 14:22 for 5000 m, his combined times the third-fastest in the event's history. The door had opened for a possible pro triathlon career. "With serious training and more experience I think I can improve my swim and run times a lot more," Otani tweeted afterward. "I hope that you'll all keep cheering on Ryotaro Otani's next big challenge!" A runner of Otani's ability backed by the power of Hakone Ekiden fandom and the Aoyama Gakuin University name value. The impact on the Japanese triathlon scene could be huge. Maybe on the world scene too. Sponsors are already lining up. In Japan they love to use the phrase "From Hakone to the World." Otani is on his way from Hakone to another world.
© 2016 Brett Larner
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