Despite scintillating 9th place and 5th place finishes in the 10000 m at the 2012 London Olympics and 2013 Moscow World Championships, she retired in 2014 at the age of just 25. Returning to racing in June, 2018, within two years she was breaking PB after PB and had the Tokyo Olympics in range. Having said that she would "absolutely never" do another marathon, she now says, "there's a possibility." She's a natural born talent, and with a coach she trusts she's bounding up the steps toward the top level of the sport worldwide.
In 2007 Niiya won the first Tokyo Marathon at the age of 18, but after several failed attempts she gave them up. Since her return she has focused on the 10000 m, but after finishing only 11th at the Doha World Championships her coach Masato Yokota had her try things outside her speciality including the half marathon and 1500 m. As she took on these new challenges her thinking started to change.
Right after her half marathon national record in January Niya said with no ambiguity that she would "absolutely never" do another marathon. But things are different now. If you look abroad, Sifan Hassan (Netherlands) won the 1500 m and 10000 m gold medals at the 2019 World Championships. The kind of boundaries that used to exist between middle and long distance, between road and track racing, are evaporating, and Niiya has come to realize that.
"The world evolves constantly, so we have to evolve too," she says. "Not just marathons, not just middle distance or long distance on the track, but in every area that we can develop our potential. Thanks to coach Yokota my anxiety about long distances has been fading. I'm not dead set against a marathon like I used to be, and I can feel that the possibility is there. If I just say that I'm not good at them or hate them, I won't get any work."
If Niiya actually did a serious marathon, what kind of time could she run? Speculation as to the answer is the stuff of fans' dreams. But first she has to get the job done in the 10000 m. She has already run the qualifying time for the Tokyo Olympics, so if she wins the Dec. 4 National Championships on Dec. 4 she will be at the Olympics for sure. "The plan is to win with a national record," she says. "That's what I'm training for." The current national record, 30:48.89, was set 18 years ago by Yoko Shibui. As of right now Niiya looks to have the momentum, support crew and overall vibe to clear such an ambitious hurdle.
photo © 2020 Masato Yokota, all rights reserved
translated and edited by Brett Larner