In October 2018, Ms. Ai Fukuhara, who had led the world of women’s table tennis in Japan for a long time, announced retirement.As a person in charge of supporting athletes in Mizuno, we asked her to talk with Shigeyuki Tamayama, who had watched over her by her side since she was 14 until retirement, about some episodes in her table tennis life up until now as well as her future.
I could focus on playing since he prepared the environment where I could always work on table tennis at ease
――People in charge of supporting athletes are like a bridge between athletes and Mizuno as athletes give feedback to the development team about equipment and wear. So please tell us memories with Tamayama, who was in charge of you for 15 years.
Fukuhara : Mr. Tamayama had taken care of me since I was 14.Even when I was at a rebellious age as a teenager as well as when I was trying to be more like an adult, he always supported me with much patience.I got nervous before a big competition and during a training camp of the national team.But Mr. Tamayama warmly watched over me from a right distance and always put me as an athlete first. When I was focusing on practice and a match so much that I forgot to bring wear, he handed me spare wear quietly. Haha
Tamayama : Actually, I secretly prepared one in my bag every time since then. Haha
Fukuhara : Honestly I forgot things several times after that, but he saved me every time.He always made an environment where I felt at ease so that I could focus on practices and matches all the time.So I probably relied on him too much.Even so, he scolded me with a normal sense when he had to by saying “No means no”.When I think about it now, it was thoughtful of him to treat athletes as ‘a person’.I cannot thank him enough for his consideration.
Tamayama : Thank you so much for the words that can make me feel happy as a person in charge of support!
――What did you request for shoes and wear?
Fukuhara : In 2014, I missed the World Team Table Tennis Championships held in Tokyo because of an injury.I remember there was a big change in my mindset caused by this incident.To be honest, I didn’t request much for shoes and wear before that. I cared only if shoes were slippery and hurt my feet.Oh, and also if they were cute or not.This was more important probably. Haha.
Tamayama : That’s right! I remember you had that phase.You liked pink and hearts, right?
Fukuhara : In my teens and early twenties, my requests were just about glittery shoelaces and that sort of stuff. Haha.But after the injury in 2014, I became more sensitive about senses of my body.As a result, I started to make many requests such as strengthening an upper part so that shoes would be more fixed and changing each part of the soles and the length and width of shoelaces.I finally became able to talk with Mr. Tamayama about the things I should have talked about.
Tamayama : At that time in 2014, we had an absolute confidence in shoes when we gave her them, so we were also quite shocked when she got injured.In fact there was no causal relationship between the shoes and the injury, but it was also a fact that we felt “If we had provided better shoes, there wouldn’t have been any injuries”.But contents of her requests changed a lot after the injury for sure.She started to tell us in details about what part felt wierd and where and how she wanted to adjust them.
Fukuhara : Now it’s a good memory that I asked them to make many prototypes with or without a strengthening tape and then tried many times.
Tamayama : We had improved shoes and done many trials and errors since we started working with Ms. Fukuhara, but many times we decided not to tell her so that she wouldn’t be too conscious of the points of improvement.Even when we said something to her, it was like “They got better, so please try them”.Then her reply was “They're cute!”, so we immediately told her “That’s not the point!”, which is now a fun conversation to remember. Haha
I can’t switch on suddenly during my time off
――Were you a type of person to draw a clear line between time for table tennis and time off?
Fukuhara : I definitely did.I couldn’t even switch on during time off. Haha
Tamayama : That’s her strength and an amazing thing about her.During practice, she had such an aura that we couldn’t even talk to her, but I’ve never seen her reviewing the practice once she left there.The moment she left a practice ground, she said “What should I eat today?”I was talking to her in my mind that “You were thinking about something seriously just now!” Haha.On the other hand, even after having a big laugh during a break, she got this serious aura which prevented anyone from approaching her the second she entered a practice ground.So in case of Ms. Fukuhara, I tried to move away from her quietly once she entered a practice ground.
Fukuhara : Actually I was often told that I could switch on and off quickly and it was hard to come close to me during practice.
――How did you spend your time off mostly?
Fukuhara : While I traveled around the world for matches, partly because there was not much time off, I just ate, went shopping or slept.
Tamayama : All the table tennis players who travel around the world for matches just repeat the process of practice, match and transfer, right?
Fukuhara : I got so excited when I had a half day off and could go shopping at a supermarket.I was super happy and psyched just by buying a hair clip. Haha.
Now my life is centering around raising my child by the way.As my husband likes to wear matching clothes with our daughter, the most fun thing for me now is to find those clothes.
I want to share what I learned from table tennis and what is so fascinating and interesting about it
――As a last question, could you tell us about your future goal and dream?
Fukuhara : I’ve been involved in table tennis for 27 years and I got help from many people and learned a lot.I want to make table tennis a sport which more people can enjoy by telling my experiences and what is interesting about it to more and more people. So I want to be of some help for that.
Tamayama : I decided to enter Mizuno because I love sports.And I spent most of my life as an employee with Ms. Fukuhara and table tennis.There are not many sports like table tennis which a 3-year-old and an 80-year-old can play by exactly the same rules.I’d be really happy if I could utilize my past experiences to help spread the fun and fascination of table tennis as a “3 generation sport”