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Aiming to Make 100th Hakone Ekiden, Rikkyo University Names Track Star Yuichiro Ueno as Head Coach

On Nov. 13 Rikkyo University, which will celebrate its 150th anniversary in 2024, announced its new "Rikkyo Hakone Ekiden 2024" project, naming DeNA corporate team runner Yuichiro Ueno, 33, as head coach of its ekiden program.

A graduate of Nagano's Saku Chosei H.S. and Hakone powerhouse Chuo University, Ueno has been well-known for his unique personality as well as his achievements both at those schools and at the SB and DeNA teams. He will leave DeNA at the end of November and take over at Rikkyo effective Dec. 1 to lead its ekiden team to qualify for the 100th Hakone Ekiden in 2024. He plans to remain active as an athlete, training directly alongside the athletes he will supervise.

If successful it will be Rikkyo's first time qualifying for the Hakone Ekiden since 1968. For a school more than half a century removed from the Hakone frontlines Rikkyo's new development project is an ambitious one, and the appointment of the idiosyncratic Ueno as head coach adds intrigue to the buildup to Hakone's 100th running. "We will do everything possible to earn a place at the 2024 Hakone Ekiden," Ueno said confidently at the official announcement at Rikkyo's main campus in Toshima, Tokyo. "But it won't stop there. I want to develop athletes who won't look only at Hakone but beyond to international competition. Now that I'm in my 30s I'm thrilled and excited to have this new opportunity as head coach."

Rikkyo University's track and field team was founded in 1920 and first qualified for the 15th edition of the Hakone Ekiden in 1934. Its best-ever placing came at the 33rd Hakone in 1957 where it was 3rd. Of its 27 times qualifying for Hakone to date its last appearance was at the 44th edition in 1968. Rikkyo University's new president Yanchun Kaku, who took his position at the start of the current academic year in April, voiced his high expectations for the project, saying, "Connecting this history and tradition of this university with the history and tradition of the Hakone Ekiden through the tasuki will unite our 20,000 students and 200,000 supporters into one unified body. I know that the hurdle to qualify for the Hakone Ekiden will be high, but with the principles of the scholarly warrior at heart I welcome Ueno as our new head coach."

Ueno assumes his new office on Dec. 1. "At the present time I have no plans to retire as an athlete," he said with the clam maturity of a leader instead of his characteristic edginess. "But my priority will be leading the team. I will train during the time I have available. As an athlete I will no longer be targeting the Olympics or World Championships. In the end I want to finally run the good marathon that has escaped me so far. That is the example I want to show the students. When I was at my peak maybe I had a brash, big-talking image, but as a coach I want to start from the beginning and learn as I go."

DeNA corporate team executive head coach and JAAF long distance and marathon development project leader Toshihiko Seko, 62, commented, "A coach's job is not an easy one. It's one that must be done with humility and respect." Ueno said that he had contacted Tokai University head coach Hayashi Morozumi, 52, who coached him in his Saku Chosei H.S. days, to tell him the news. "I told him that I have not forgotten my gratitude to him for all that he taught me," said Ueno. "I hope to become his rival as a coach some day."

The road back to Hakone after a 50-year-plus absence will not be an easy one, but as a popular school Rikkyo's brand value is high. Its campus in Niiza, Saitama already features an all-weather surface track. Vice-president Tetsuya Matsuo will focus on promoting the Rikkyo Hakone Ekiden 2024 project. "We will complete our new team dormitory by next fall," he said. "We would like to encourage promising athletes to apply by utilizing the athlete select entrance examination. Recruitment begins now."

At this year's Hakone Ekiden Qualifier half marathon Rikkyo finished 28th in team scoring, 37:45 behind 11th-place Jobu University which barely made the qualifying bracket. The number of schools that will be able to compete is expected to be expanded at the 100th running in 2024. With five years to go until then it's a realistic goal for Rikkyo to be one of them. Susumu Hara, 51, became head coach of Aoyama Gakuin University in 2004, and over a similar time period with similar improvements in recruitment, admissions and dormitories transformed it from a Hakone non-starter into one of the top programs.  With a brand value at least as high as Aoyama Gakuin's and a charismatic new head coach in Ueno, Rikkyo University is set to bring a whirlwind of new energy to the university ekiden scene.

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translated by Brett Larner

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