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The People of Hitachi: The "Athlete Mom" of Clay Target Shooting – Overcoming Many Hardships in a competitive career
Yukie Nakayama, an employee of Hitachi Construction Machinery, has enjoyed an active career representing Japan as a competitor in clay target shooting. She put together a record of brilliant accomplishments, including having competed in five Olympic Games from the Sydney Games in 2000 to the Tokyo Games in 2021, as well as in World Championships and Asian Games. Last year, she capped nearly 24 years of competitive career and made the decision to retire from international competition.
Her journey up to this point was not a smooth one. While pursuing a career as an athlete, every day she was busily engaged in raising her daughter, Mei, as a single mother and competing in tournaments at the same time. She also faced a number of hardships, among them the development of focal dystonia, a neurological disorder of the brain.
How did Yukie overcome her difficulties in her pursuit of an athletic career?
Switching sports to become an elite shooter
Yukie played softball and was a captain of her high school team, which went to both national athletic events and to the Inter-High School Sports Festivals. In a seemingly radical change in form, she switched to clay target shooting when Hitachi Construction Machinery, which was seeking to establish a clay target shooting team, scouted her in her senior year of high school.
Yukie was recommended by the former manager of the Japanese national softball team, Taeko Utsugi, who at that time was leading the Hitachi Takasaki Women's Softball Club. When she was asked about promising young athletes who might be suited for clay target shooting, she suggested Yukie for her kinetic vision and the good development of her core.
After high school graduation in 1997, she joined Hitachi Construction Machinery. She was then sent to Italy, where clay target shooting is highly advanced, for serious training in the sport.
Recalling those days, she said that "Looking back on it now, I am amazed at the resolution of a Hitachi Construction Machinery that had decided to send me, an 18-year-old girl just out of high school who had never even held a gun before, overseas for practice."
With the entire company behind her, three years after joining Hitachi Construction Machinery, she had reached the point of entering international tournaments as a representative of Japan in 2000. She continued to steadily accumulate results in further competitions with the world's top shooters.
Constant trial & error as an “athlete mom”
Although active as an athlete throughout the world, Yukie was also raising her daughter, Mei, as a single mother. Because she frequently attended tournaments abroad, it was a continuous struggle to both work and rear a child.
"I have been taking my daughter Mei with me to the shooting range for practice and to regular competitions since she was three years old. It was hard for me to be separated from her, but I can’t afford to quit shooting for the sake of our daily life, so I decided she could accompany me. After getting permission from the shooting range, I let her play or do her homework there. At the range we did what we could, devising ways for her to do her summer holiday homework and whatever."
Despite Yukie's efforts, long separations from her daughter were sometimes unavoidable. She says that when Mei was six, her loneliness grew and asked her mother to quit shooting. Reflecting on that time, Mei said:
"Even though my kind grandparents looked after me, my mother was a big presence in my life, and I missed her. Even so, while wondering why my mother didn't stay at home, I also realized that she was doing something really cool unlike other mothers. I guess it was a conflict particular to being young. But as I grew up, pride overtook loneliness, and feelings of wanting to support her began to win out."
Support athlete moms based on the personal experience
After Mei entered high school and she no longer had to devote so much time and energy to child-rearing, Yukie began a new challenge, aiming to become a coach in the future. In 2017 at the age of 38, she entered the Juntendo University Graduate School of Health and Sports Science. Here, she conducted research into the activities of women in the field of sports. Theme of her master's thesis was “A Coaching Career Path and its Development: A Case of Japanese Female Clay Target Shooters.”
After graduation, Yukie made use of her research to start support activities for female athletes. Serving as director of Mama Athletes Network (MAN), an organization that supports athlete moms, she has been active as a core member, becoming involved in providing information and operating events for athlete moms, as well as other projects.
"The most-difficult aspect of child-rearing was having to rely on my parents and employer in order to balance competition and raising Mei. Since I knew no other athlete moms when my daughter was a child, I figured that I was about the only one applying myself to sport while raising a child, so there was nothing for me to do but keep going. While I think support systems have been gradually created, it is my desire to actively communicate helpful information to athletes wanting to get married and have children while continuing to compete."
Illness strikes before culminating her career
Yukie has expanded her activities beyond competition to many different fields. In March 2020, she remarried with Shigetaka Oyama, who also represents Japan in clay target shooting, and was leading a fulfilling life in both her public and private spheres.
Immediately after her remarriage, however, Yukie was struck by an unexpected condition that would profoundly affect her shooting. Just before the tournament that she was anticipating as the culmination of her competitive life, she started feeling a decrease in the ability to pull of the trigger of her competition shotgun.
"Thinking that this was a symptom arising from the pressure or strain of competition, I consulted with specialists and adopted a lot of mental training. But something wasn't right; it wasn't mental. Thinking I may be able to overcome it with practice, I stepped up my repetitive practice, but it only got worse. I wound up not being able to pull the trigger at all and could not even test fire my gun."
In this distressed state, Yukie made a discovery when she happened to be watching a TV show about a disease of the brain. Suspecting that this disease could be the cause of her problem, she decided to go to the hospital for testing. The diagnosis was focal dystonia, a condition in which a part of the body does not move in accordance with one's volition.
Focal dystonia is a neurological disorder in which an abnormality occurs in the cerebral nerves, causing muscles in the fingers or elsewhere to stiffen and/or twitch, preventing them from moving in accordance with one's volition. It is believed to arise from the overuse of a part of the body in fine, repetitive movements carried out over a long period, such piano playing.
Treatments include surgery, drug treatments, and physiotherapy. In the case of surgery, a hole must be drilled in the cranium. She was informed that only a 70 to 80% return to normal function could be expected and that it would be extremely difficult to return to performing at her best level. Yukie, however, was quick to elect for surgery if it meant improving the symptoms.
"I held this fantastical dream of 2020 being the culmination of my career. Given the possibility of once more being able to pull the trigger, I could not envision a future in which I did not give it a try and instead wound up never again being able to shoot."
Overcoming disease and performing at her best
Though Yukie's surgery had been settled on, her daughter Mei and husband Shigetaka could not immediately reconcile themselves to it.
According to Mei: "Since it was not interfering with my mother's daily life, when I thought about the risk from surgery of ending up with a walking or speech disability or of losing her memory, I had to oppose the idea, not as the daughter of an athlete, but as family."
Shigetaka, said that "Given that the international tournament she was aiming for had been postponed until the following year and that, according to the doctor, if she had surgery now, she might make it on time, I was caught in a bind between thinking I should support her as a competitive shooter or oppose her as family."
Yukie had decided without hesitation on surgery, but still she had many sleepless nights before the day of the operation. However, after talking with Mei over a video call right before the surgery, she says that she felt strongly that this was a trial she had to overcome.
Yukie was now ready for the surgery. The procedure was a success, and she recovered to the extent of being able to pull the trigger. Returning to competition on the world stage, however, was not easy.
"I resumed practice, but my condition was such that the only scores I could get immediately revealed that I was out of form. It was very upsetting to be worried about by those around me who did not know my circumstances. By plunging into rehabilitation and training, I was making progress, but I was impatient and anxious about whether I would be in time for the tournament."
Her family also worried about her. Her husband watched continuously as she struggled with rehabilitation and training and at times shed tears during practice. Her daughter saw that her daily life, which had no disabilities pre-surgery, was impacted, and there were times when she felt uncertain about whether the surgery had actually been a success.
When summer 2021 arrived, a still-anxious Yukie entered the international tournament. The events she entered were the Trap Women and, pairing with her husband, the Trap Mixed Team. Having long embraced the goal of entering the team event, she along with Shigetaka shot perfect scores in the final round, placing them fifth in the ranking.
"As I completed the tournament, I experienced a sense of satisfaction and fulfilment that I had never felt before. In this tournament, my usual feeling of wanting to win a medal was replaced by respect for my fellow shooters, with whom I had shared the experience of competing, and everyone else involved. It was respect for their resilience in enduring the one-year postponement and their ability to put on display the skills they had perfected. As for myself, having done everything I could, I was truly filled with a sense of accomplishment."
Though uncertain as to whether or not she could pull the trigger like she used to, Yukie managed to perform at her best. Shigetaka, her husband and shooting partner, giving her a look of admiration, said of her: "I thought how amazing she was. Despite being told that a complete return to normal was impossible, she went even further and re-created herself as the 'new Yukie Nakayama.'"
Her daughter Mei was unable to attend the event but gave Yukie her support over her smartphone. Speaking proudly of her mother, she reflected:
"Just as I thought, Yukie Nakayama is not your everyday person."
Toward a second stage in life
Yukie spent 24 years with eyes forward pursuing her calling as a clay target shooter. After crowning her career with a strong showing, she made the decision to make this her final tournament and retire from the top ranks of competition. And with Mei having gone abroad for language study, Yukie had reached a milestone in both her private and public life.
"I have no regrets. I’m glad I was able to complete everything, savoring the feeling of joy, the sense of satisfaction and accomplishment at the very end."
Yukie has now entered the second stage of her life. Going forward, she intends to engage in activities through Mama Athletes Network and other avenues to support athlete moms while contributing to the development of successors and to the internal training of human resources.
"I think it’s my mission to give back everything I've learned in my athletic career and contribute to society. I believe that people are formed not only by their successes but also by their failures. My role in the future is to communicate this, along with my own experiences."
After a life in which she was continuously both a mother and an athlete, Yukie has begun a new chapter. With the knowledge and experience that she gained from overcoming various hardships, she will continue to take on further challenges.