Megumi Harada Ikeda shows off the length of her epee.

 

She was five years old, and she watched in her living room the 1984 Los Olympics with amazement.

Jackie Joyner Kersee! Carl Lewis!

And so Megumi Harada thought one day, this little girl from Nanyo, Yamagata in northern Japan would be as fast and as cool as Jackie Joyner-Kersee.

As it turned out, Harada (whose family name changed to Ikeda after marriage) simply didn’t have the athletic gifts to excel in track and field. And yet, the flame of high performance can be sparked in unexpected ways. Ikeda would go on to represent Japan at the 2004 Athens Olympics and the 2008 Beijing Olympics in individual épée fencing. Her life as an Olympian was 5 parts luck, and 5 parts determination.

Yamagata is as far from the world of fencing as you can get. But one day, a teacher in her high school came up to her and said, “You’re a tall one! You should try fencing!” Ikeda knew nothing about fencing. But she thought she’d give it a try, and so joined 19 other boys and girls on the school fencing team. And when one of the boys a couple of years ahead of her won a national high school tournament, she knew that her teacher could get results.

Ikeda, whom I interviewed on Zoom, is such a pleasant person, all smiles and joy. She put on her full fencing uniform to surprise me. She giggles as she explains the amount of gear a fencer has to wear. But the story she tells in such a lighthearted fashion is one of pure determination.

When Ikeda was in her final year of high school, she told her parents she wanted to move to Tokyo, continue to fence, and then compete in the Olympics. Her parents were bewildered. She had to go to university and get a real job, not waste money on fencing. Going to the Olympics is “impossible,” they told her.

Ikeda always had the support of her parents, but when she was told her dream was impossible, the high school girl stood her ground. She had developed such a powerful image of making the Olympics that giving up on the dream so quickly was hurtful. Giving up without trying was unthinkable.

She pushed back. She fought with her parents for two months until she decided to lay out her plan and her vision of the Olympics in a formal presentation to her parents: what goals she would have to achieve in her four years in university, including making the national team, and becoming national champion by her junior year.

The eighteen year old closed the presentation by saying that if she did not achieve those goals, she’d return home to Yamagata and pursue a normal life. But if she did make those goals, she would try to make the Olympics, and then go on to graduate school. Her parents finally gave in, and allowed their daughter to move to Tokyo to pursue her dream.

Ikeda moved to Tokyo and made the national team by her junior year. Unfortunately she suffered a knee injury, upending any chance of going to the 2000 Sydney Olympics. In 2002, she graduated from university, and then began a second push for the Olympics.

If you’re a world-class volleyball, basketball or baseball player in Japan, you are likely in a corporate or professional team. If you’re in a prominent sport like swimming, track and field, wrestling or judo in Japan, your sports association likely funds the training of the best athletes. But if you’re an adult in a lesser known sport, you are not going to get all that much financial support. According to Ikeda, the Japan Fencing Federation at the time was not financially strong, and provided no support.

In fact, Ikeda worked a variety of part-time jobs – at restaurants, bookstores, printing factories, delivery companies – so she could fund her dream. With no support from anyone, she planned to move to Europe where she could train at one of the meccas of fencing – Budapest, Hungary – so that she could travel easily to many of the épée world cups scheduled in Europe.

She knew the reigning Olympic champion in women’s individual épée, Timea Nagy, was based in Budapest.

Did Ikeda know her? No.

Did she know anyone in Hungary? No.

No problem.

Ikeda took to the internet, identified a Japanese person living in Budapest, and convinced her to help. With the help of her new friend, a detailed plan emerged. On a budget of 2 million yen (or about USD18,700 in 2003), Ikeda was going to rent an apartment in Budapest, train at a nearby fencing club and compete at tournaments in Europe.

Thanks to her Japanese friend in Budapest, she was able to train at the club where Nagy trained. “To get really good, really quickly, it’s better to train with the champion, right,” she told me.

During the weekdays, she trained with the best fencers in Hungary. Then she took the night train to Spain, Italy, France, Germany, Russia, to compete in épée world cups on the weekend. Ikeda got better. She accumulated points. And at the 2004 World Cup in Thessaloniki, Greece she had enough points to qualify for the 2004 Athens Olympics and represent Japan.

Her parents, who objected so fiercely to her “impossible” dream, sat proudly in the stands when their daughter entered the stadium in Athens at the opening ceremony, as an Olympian.

Harada-Ikeda (left) competing at the 2004 Athens Olympics (courtesy of Megumi Harada Ikeda)

Ikeda would lose in the second round to the Italian Cristiana Cascioli, who nearly toppled eventual champion, Nagy in the third round. And Ikeda represented Japan again in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, only to fall to silver medalist Ana Brânză of Romania in the second round.

Today, Ikeda supports the Olympic movement with her work in the Japan Anti-Doping Association (JADA) educating athletes and the parents of athletes on the issues of doping, how to prepare for drug testing, and what medication and supplements to avoid. She also believes it’s important to get these messages across to the top athletes, the “influencers” of the next generation of athletes.

In the end, it is always about influencing and inspiring the next generation.

In 1964, Ikeda’s father was a teenager when the torch relay passed through her hometown of Nanyo. He didn’t carry the torch, but he was part of a team of kids who would jog behind the torchbearer as they brought the sacred Olympic flame closer to Tokyo.

This year, the Olympian Ikeda was scheduled to run in the Tokyo2020 torch relay on March 24 this year, if not for the CoronaVirus pandemic. But she hopes that the torch relay is revived in 2021. And she hopes she can convince her father to run with her.

One can dream.

Harada- Ikeda at her second Olympics, in Beijing, 2008. (Courtesy of Megumi Harada Ikeda)
Imre Park on the medals podium
Gold medalist South Korea’s Park Sangyoung (C), silver medalist Hungary’s Geza Imre (L) and bronze medalist France’s Gautheir Grumier attend the awarding ceremony of men’s epee individual of fencing at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on Aug. 9, 2016. / CHINA OUT

He was so close! Up by 4 at match point in an épée finals, victory was imminent.

The Hungarian, Géza Imre, was competing in his fifth Olympic Games, since his debut at the 1996 Atlanta Games, where he won bronze in the men’s individual épée. He tasted near glory by taking silver with his compatriots in the men’s epee team event.

And yet, there he was, the defending world champion, at the age of 41, seconds away from grasping gold at match point, up 14-10 on the Park Sang-young, the 20-year-old South Korean, ranked 21st in the world.

The drama was compelling even for me, a person who can’t tell the difference between an epee, a foil and a sabre. But my journalist’s eye saw that this was a compelling contest of righty vs lefty, East vs West, promising youth vs grizzled veteran.

Except for South Koreans, most spectators likely felt Imre was a split second from winning his elusive gold medal. Down 14-10, Park took it one step at a time. Countering a lunge, Park strikes, and makes it 14-11. “There’s one back,” said the announcer. Park goes low, and sneaks his epee in to hit Irme’s left hip. 14-12. “Park’s closed the gap.”

The crowd is beginning to think that Park has the slightest of chances. Imre lunges, aiming midriff, but is blocked by Park, who counters to get to 14-13. “There’s another one for Park!” shouts the announcer. “This is an amazing final now!”

Rio Olympics Fencing Men
Park Sangyoung of South Korea celebrates with his national flag after defeating Geze Imra of Hungary to win gold in a men’s individual epee final at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Tuesday, Aug. 9, 2016. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini)

Balancing caution and aggression, Park hops his way to Imre and then suddenly withdraws getting into a deep crouch, nearly losing his balance and falling backwards. The announcers are saying of Imre, “all he needs is a double. A double will do it,” at the very point Park strikes. Suddenly, it’s 14-14, and in épée, you don’t need to win by two. Gold goes to the winner of the next point.

“Géza Imre at the age of 41,” shouts the announcer, “was miles ahead, and then decided ‘I want to finish in a flourish. I want to finish with an attack.’ And Park has earned the right to be contested – a one-hit gold medal final!”

When play resumed, Park attacked. With his lunge, he stabbed the left side of Imre’s helmet convincingly, his helmet flashing green, his blade bending beautifully and fleetingly in a 180 degree arc.

“It’s Park! The 20 year old from Korea has done it. He’s won Korea’s first ever épée.”

Youth exploded. He flipped his helmet. He roared. He swung his épée in wild glee. He raced to his coach and slammed into him in an exuberant hug. “Unbelievable”, the announcer said, stressing each syllable. “That young man is a massive, massive talent!”

Perhaps it was Park’s youth that kept him in the hunt for gold. A promising fencer, a knee injury kept Park out of competition for much of 2015, which is why his ranking was so low when he got to Rio. But Park was not dwelling on the past. As he said in this article, he was in the moment.

“I was not even thinking about trying to win a gold medal. Since this is the festival for everyone, I wanted to enjoy myself. When will I ever compete at an Olympics again? I did not want to have any regrets, and I think it showed.”

Imre outpointed by Park in epee finals
Park scores the decisive 15th point.