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High School 1500 m Star Yuya Sawada Set to Go to Louisiana State University


After placing 6th in the 1500 m final at the Cali 2022 World U20 Championships, a Japanese high school girl is set to go to university in the U.S.A. in pursuit of becoming globally competitive. Initially reluctant to go abroad for school due to the changes in living conditions and high level of competition, she took inspiration from others who are active internationally and decided to take the plunge. The athlete is Yuya Sawada, 17, a 3rd-year at Hamamatsu Shiritsu H.S. At last summer's National Championships she was the only female high schooler to make the 1500 m final, and now she hopes to follow NR holder Nozomi Tanaka in making it to the final in a major championships 1500 m.

Sawada was inspired to begin running her third year of junior high school. She had been a member of her school's basketball team, but after quitting the team the summer of her third year she ran in a local ekiden in Shizuoka. With a strong performance she helped her team win. The next year she when she entered Hamamatsu Shiritsu H.S. she started running seriously, and just over a year later in June, 2022 she won the Tokai Region Sports Festival 1500 m in a meet record 4:20.17.

Two months later she represented Japan at the Cali World U20 Championships in Colombia where she was 6th in the final in 4:12.87, the all-time 2nd-fastest Japanese U20 mark. That performance got international attention. Coach Masahiko Sugii said, "A lot of the other coaches there were stunned by how she ran. The Kenyan coach told me, 'She's amazing! She might win next time.'"

At 160 cm, Sawada has a dynamic style that uses her hips to power her to almost the level of the best Africans her age. Expectations for her are high in Japan. She was named to the JAAF's Diamond Athlete program, which provides specialized support to help develop next-generation athletes with potential to become globally competitive. Only six athletes were named to the program this year, of which four were college students. Sawada was the only high school girl selected. Launched in 2014, the Diamond Athlete program's alumni include sprinter Abdul Hakim Sani Brown and javelin world champion Haruka Kitaguchi.

After her performance at the World U20 Championships Sawada was surprised to get offers from multiple American universities. "I couldn't even imagine going overseas by myself," she said. "It all seemed like too much for me." But the enthusiasm shown by top program Louisiana State University appealed to her, and in March, 2023 she visited the school to join in some workouts. She liked the high-level environment with athletes from around the world and one-on-one attention from the coaches, and she found herself wanting to go for it.

And at the same time, Sawada got great motivation from another Japanese athlete. Missing last summer's National High School Championships with injury, Sawada watched the success of Haruka Kitaguchi, who scored Japan's first-ever javelin gold medal at the Budapest World Championships and told herself, "I want to compete at that level someday too." She loved Kitaguchi's laughing, smiling interviews after the competition, and knowing that Kitaguchi had been in the Diamond League program before her made her feel special.

When Kitaguchi had been in a slump she had asked a Czech coach to guide her, and through that relationship with a coach who could dialogue with her on the same wavelength she quickly became the best in the world. Being in the same situation as Kitaguchi, injured and unable to get the results she dreamed of, Sawada decided to follow Kitaguchi's example and go to work under the college coach she had met in the United States. "I could tell (the LSU coach) paid attention to each athlete individually, even during team practice," she said. "I really like the way he had a bright, positive energy when he talked to the athletes and told them things like, 'That was great!'"

Right now Sawada is studying English in prep to take the language exam she needs to enter the school. She is taking online English classes from home, but when asked how it was going just smiled shyly and shook her head as if she wasn't making the progress she'd hoped. Like the high school girl she is, she said, "I really want to go to Disneyland in California. I love Disney, and Minnie Mouse, and princesses. I have three ShellieMay dolls at home." The chance to go to Disneyland might be another motivation in her decision.

Getting to the States hasn't been all fun and games, and neither will actually studying there. But there's a lot to look forward to in how Sawada evolves over the next few years. "The level there is a lot higher than in Japan, and I'm not fast enough yet to really make a difference," she said. "But I want to keep growing and become a someone who can, in the U.S., in Japan, and internationally." It's a big jump from her home in Shizuoka to the top level of the sport worldwide, but Yuya Sawada stands as one of the most promising talents of her generation set to make that jump and land it.

source article:
translated by Brett Larner

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