Japan’s Mima Ito and Jun Mizutani won Japan’s first-ever gold medal in table tennis, in the debut of the mixed doubles tournament at the Olympics on July 26.

It was an upset and a fantastic comeback as well. Liu Shiwen and Xu Xin of China had swept through their three matches to get to the finals, dropping only 1 set, their first one against their first foe, Canada. In the finals against Japan, Liu and Xu continued with their streak, winning the first two sets, before Japan came storming back for their historic victory.

If not for their dramatic victory over Germany in the quarter-finals, holding off match point after match point, there would be no smiles and tears of joy for Ito and Mizutani.

 

Anatomy of a Comeback Against Team Germany

On Sunday, July 25, Japan was up against Germany’s Petrissa Solja and Patrick Franziska. 2nd-seed Japan was favored over 7th-seed Germany, but they battled evenly back and forth. When Japan won the sixth set, the seventh one would determine who moves on to the semi-finals.

Germany started off strong – very strong –  going up 5-0. They extended their lead to 9-2, going up by 7 points. It was the highest point differential in the entire match, and a seemingly insurmountable mountain to climb for Japan.   And when Germany flicked a winner wide to get to 10-6, they had 4 match points, and were on the verge of advancing.

Then something clicked inside Mizutani. The 32-year old 4-time Olympian shot a winner and then fired tight top spin forehands that the Germans sent into the net or wide. Somehow, Japan had staved off 4 match points.

Germany served and Japan sent it wide, leading to Germany’s 5th match point at 11-10. But Ito’s serve was quickly returned into the net, and the score was deadlocked at 11-11. Germany served, and Japan sent it out, so Germany again were at match point, now for the sixth time!

Even if you are casual watcher of table tennis, you could not help but feel all tense inside. The small racquet and tiny ball on a small table with two people requires constant and intense concentration, instantaneous reflexes and explosive power. It’s exhausting to watch, particularly in a tight match.

Japan tied it at 12-12 with Germany returning into the net. Japan won the next point, and suddenly they had their first match point, but on the next point, Mizutani was caught off balance and mis-shot, sending it to 13-13. Back and forth it went as the teams knotted it again at 14-14.Franziska serves, Ito returns, Solja returns and Mizutani sends a heavy top-spin cross court which Franziska sends out. Japan has its second match point.

Ito, at her first Olympics, a childhood friend of Mizutani’s, had her moment of moments. Her spin serves usually end up in the mid court of her opponent’s side, but this one went deep to the forehand of Solja who simply could not catch up to it. Her return was fired wide and the Ito Mizutani team won. While Mizutani was all smiles, Ito collapsed in tears of exhaustion.

11-8, 5-11, 3-11, 11-3, 9-11, 11-8, 16-14.

For Solja and Franziska, nothing but the thousand-mile stares of disbelief.

For Ito and Mizutani, the right to fight another day.

Caryn Davies and 2012 gold medal women eights
Caryn Davies (far right) with the 2012 London Olympic championship women’s eight team.

In 2012, the US women’s eight was the favorite to take the gold medal at that year’s London Olympics. Stroke seat Caryn Davies wasn’t buying it. “Everyone’s bow is even at the start line.  Being the favorite means nothing when we line up to race.”  And Team Canada was nipping at their heels, having nearly beaten Team USA in a World Cup race a couple of months prior to the Summer Games.

But only 500 meters into the finals of the women’s eights in London, coxswain Mary Whipple could see the commanding lead they had built, and she told Davies some years after that at that point in the race she was so certain of victory that she had wanted to stand up in the stern of the boat and shout to the competition behind her, “Bring it!” She didn’t, but the Americans did indeed win gold, leading from start to finish and winning America’s third-ever gold medal in the vaunted eights competition.

This was a significant triumph, important in cementing the American women’s dominance. And yet, for Davies, it was the end of a long road. After winning bronze in Athens and then gold in Beijing and London in the stroke position of the boat, she felt it was time to move on with her life.

Caryn Davies 2

“I had had a good run,” Davies told me. “I won a bunch of medals and ended on a high note. I was almost done with law school. I thought it was time to get a job and start ‘real’ life.” With a law degree from Columbia and an MBA from Oxford, Davies entered the reputable law firm Goodwin Procter in Boston. For three and a half years, she advised clients on finance and M&A. While getting the work done, she wasn’t as fulfilled as she hoped to be. The competitive nature of business was different from the competitive nature of sports, and she was noticing the differences.

Business leaders love to listen to and be around sports champions. They love to hear their stories of preparation, struggle and triumph.  Yet success in sport is generally clear-cut and objective, whereas success in business is often opaque or subjective. The contrast led to the insight that the challenges of leadership and management can be greater in the world of business where goals and metrics are less clear. In such cases, the ability of leaders and managers to motivate individuals and sustain a team mindset becomes more significant.

She shared this insight in a 2017 interview with Forbes magazine.

True teamwork demands a level of bonding at deeper levels. That requires intentional effort to build. The intensity of the workplace, and its consumption of most of our brain power, leaves little reserve for building those bonds. When you’re executing a sport like rowing, even though physically demanding, you aren’t using all of your brain’s processing power, so there is reserve left to invest in relationships with your teammates.

In other words, often in business, managers may have to work harder to strengthen team bonds to improve team performance, particularly if there are perceived stars on the team. Davies experience has informed her that successful rowing teams do not emphasize the star.

In rowing, there is no standout player. On sports teams where you have star players, you see divisiveness. Generally, you know who is faster on your team, but from the outside looking in, there is no star. You see boats where there’s one person trying to win the race alone, and they burn out.   The people behind them can’t follow and there’s a disconnect between them and the rest of the team, just making the boat go slower.

Davies, who was already a member at a couple rowing clubs in Boston, began going down to the boathouse more regularly. She wasn’t there just to get in a good workout in the early mornings, but to learn from the club members who were themselves successful people with lessons for newbies to the world of business. And one day, she learned a lesson from a successful person.

“I was out in the single rowing one morning August last year and the legendary Harvard coach Charley Butt sees me and says through his megaphone, ‘Caryn, are you training for 2020? You should! Rowing loves you, and you love rowing.’”

Reflecting on that, Davies realized she still needs to play to her strengths—that maybe her work in the law firm was not the way to fulfill that drive to be the best.

I was feeling a bit frustrated with my career. I thought, okay, I could double down on law. But I don’t love law enough to be the best in the world. And there is something where I have been the best in the world – rowing -and perhaps I could still be the best in the world. Where is my best contribution? I could slog away at a law firm. But is that my best contribution?  There is this thing I am still good at and in which I still have a lot to learn – why not do it to the fullest before it’s too late?

Davies left Goodwin in February 2019 to focus on her training. Having been away from world-class competition for going on 7 years, she had to lot catching up to do, and is realistic about her chances of making it to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. But she knows she has a lot to offer.

Let’s be honest. I am nowhere near as strong physically as anyone on the team. If you put us on the rowing machine I would not beat another person. My strength has been on the technical side of rowing. That is something you never lose. I still have that. I realize I can contribute to a team by being in a boat and rowing my best and help others row a little bit better. My #1 goal for this year?  Be the best teammate I can be. That means helping everyone get faster. I acknowledge that could help someone beat me out of a spot on the team. If that is the case, so beat it. I will have achieved my goal.

She now believes she has a 50:50 chance of making Team USA for the Olympics. And she’s got one positive sign so far: US Rowing announced the crews that will compete at the 2019 World Rowing Championships to be held in Linz, Austria from August 25 to September 1, 2019, and Davies made the cut. She will compete in the women’s four-person boat with Molly Bruggeman (Dayton, Ohio/University of Notre Dame), Madeline Wanamaker (Neenah, Wis./University of Wisconsin), and Vicky Opitz (Middleton, Wis./University of Wisconsin)

Caryn Davies (Ithaca, N.Y./Harvard University) said “I’m thrilled to be racing in that boat with those teammates.  I think it’s going to be a great regatta!”