Equestrian Picks Training Iwate Team Over Rio

Equestrian picks training Iwate team over RioEquestrian Takamichi Mashiyama had his priorities, and perhaps to the surprise of many, the Rio de Janeiro Olympics were not at the top.
A four-time all-Japan show-jumping champion, Mashiyama abandoned his place on the team to Rio for a higher calling — to focus on training the team representing Iwate Prefecture at this autumn’s National Sports Festival there.

The 37-year-old Mashiyama’s aim is to show the nation, via the team, how the prefecture has recovered from the Great East Japan Earthquake. “I want to offer proof of the region’s reconstruction through the performance of the riders,” he said.

Mashiyama made the tough decision to pass up the opportunity to compete in Rio after realizing that it would make it impossible for him to coach his team over a prolonged period of time.

In show jumping, riders guide their horses over a series of obstacles along a course in a predetermined order. In top-level competitions, the bars can be set as high as 1.6 meters. The objective is to get to the finish line as quickly as possible, with penalties if the horse hits the bar or refuses to jump.

Mashiyama’s first experience on a horse came when he was in sixth grade and his father, Haruo, brought him to a horse-riding club in Oyama, Tochigi Prefecture. “Let’s make some time to spend together,” said his father, whose life was otherwise focused on his job as a sushi chef.

Haruo himself became so enamored with the sport that two years later, he opened his own riding club. It was there that Mashiyama began honing his equestrian skills in earnest.

In November last year, Mashiyama captured his fourth title at the all-Japan show-jumping championships. He followed that up in March by defending his title at CSI Kakegawa, a competition held in Shizuoka Prefecture where he beat 2000 Sydney Olympics gold medalist Jeroen Dubbledam of the Netherlands two years in a row.

Based on these results, the Japan Equestrian Federation approached him several times starting from last spring about becoming a candidate to represent Japan at the Rio Olympics. Under the federation’s rules, to be selected to the Olympic team, riders must apply themselves to the federation to become a specially designated athlete.

Mashiyama was tempted each time the federation came to call, but knew that if he became a designated athlete, he would have been required to participate in overseas competitions and training camps, making it impossible to continue coaching the Iwate Prefecture team.

Mashiyama first became involved with the Iwate team six years ago through the introduction of a friend. He has since been traveling to Iwate or having the team come to his horse-riding club in Oyama to either coach them on riding techniques or train the riders’ horses.

One Iwate team member, 23-year-old Akane Nagamura, said she had received such advice from Mashiyama as, “Even the horse is afraid during a jump, so wait until you can clearly see the obstacle.”

After the Great East Japan Earthquake struck, the team had its funding reduced, and a training plan that included competing in numerous events had to be scrapped. Mashiyama could not help but feel sympathy for the 11 members, ranging from high school age to riders in their 30s, who had been training hard as candidates to represent host Iwate at the national sports meet in October.

After agonizing over the choice between the Olympics and the Iwate team, he made his decision: “At this point, I cannot bring myself to abandon the team.”

Mashiyama continues to ride the same 16-year-old gelding, named Johnny Blunt, in competition. Eleven years ago, the horse was considered unruly and had no buyers, but Mashiyama saw something special in the horse. “It had exceptional jumping power,” recalled Mashiyama, who made the purchase.

Johnny Blunt did not achieve good results for some time, but he began winning about three years ago. Even though Johnny Blunt was not a high-priced horse, Mashiyama thought about the joy of seizing victory with his carefully nurtured “partner,” and was immediately reminded of his proteges.

“If I can see my team successfully through to the end at the sports festival, I will aim to fulfill my dream in four years’ time,” he said, setting his sights squarely on the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.