A difficult year helped pave the road to success.
Mima Ito has been looking forward to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics since she was in grade six, but she believes the short time that remains is most critical to her success. “The Games will start in a few months,” she explains. “I can’t just rely on willpower or mental strength. I want to compete at the Olympics based on real skill, so how I spend my time over the next seven months is going to have an effect on how well I do. That’s why I’m careful about how I spend my time every single day.”
In order to win a gold medal in Tokyo, Ito knows that it’s important to stay grounded. It was a lesson she learned at the Rio Olympics, where, at age 15, she became the youngest table tennis player to win an Olympic medal. “I was really excited about winning the bronze medal and was so happy to have people come up and congratulate me,” she recalls. “I couldn’t forget the fun and excitement of Rio, but looking back, I don’t think it was good that I spent so much time dwelling on it.”
Indeed, the year that followed was a difficult one for Ito. “I tried really hard to make people think that the medal in Rio wasn’t just luck,” she acknowledges. “For around two months after the Games, it seemed like I was being interviewed every day, and whenever someone asked about my goals for the future, that’s how I answered. But no matter how hard I tried, I wasn’t getting results. I didn’t realize it until later, but I was putting pressure on myself with the things I was saying every day.”
Ito is able to look back on her slump with a sense of objectivity, but at the time, she struggled to find a way out. “It was the first time in my athletic career that I’d ever tasted failure. Now, it seems like every year passes in the blink of an eye, but that was a really tough, really long year.”
As she struggled, one of her teammates began to shine. Miu Hirano, who is the same age as Ito, earned her first singles win at the All Japan National Championships in 2017. A short time later, at the 2017 Asian Championship, Hirano managed to defeat the world’s top-ranked Chinese players - the first time in 21 years a Japanese player was able to reach this plateau.
“Miu went to the Rio Olympics as a reserve member, but she didn’t play,” Ito recounts. “I think she managed to take her frustration and transform it into motivation.” Watching Hirano helped open Ito’s eyes. She revised her training regime and began expanding her range of movement. “As I got better, I began increasing the number of free rally practices I was doing, but I also incorporated the multiball training I did with my mother when I was young. The balls come in on difficult trajectories, and hitting them over and over, hundreds and thousands of times, is really tough for me. But because of that training, I was able to expand my range of comfort.”
Ito believes that difficult year was an indispensible step on the road to success. “Just like Miu was inspired by what I did in Rio, I was inspired by her and managed to change. If I had continued to perform well after Rio, I wouldn’t be the person I am now. I really value having teammates who have worked really hard from the time we were young.”