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[ODDS and EVENS] Coach Says Miho Takagi Appears Ready to Shine at the World Championships

Miho Takagi is gearing up for her biggest competition yet in 2024. Dutch coach Johan de Wit has high hopes: "If she does her best, then she'll skate fast."

As three-time Olympian Miho Takagi prepares for the 2024 ISU World Single Distances Speed Skating Championships in Calgary, Canada, Johan de Wit, her longtime coach, believes she's on course for a successful showing at the Olympic Oval.

Speaking on Thursday, February 8 by phone from Calgary, de Wit reminded this columnist what makes Takagi one of the most compelling figures in her chosen sport.

There are "not many faster skaters than her," the Dutch mentor pointed out.

He added that Takagi, who made her Olympic debut at age 15 at the 2010 Vancouver Games, doesn't need elaborate strategies to be in the running for victories. In essence, it boils down to one thing: speed.

"If she does her best, then she'll skate fast," de Wit said, answering my inquiry about his outlook for her in Calgary. 

"I expect her to do her best and we'll see [the results]."

The veteran Japanese speed skater has had a World Cup season to remember, one to remind everybody that she remains one of the premier athletes in her chosen sport.

Takagi captured her second consecutive ISU World Cup speed skating season title in the women's 1,000 meters on Friday, February 2 in Quebec City, Canada, the final stop of the 2023-24 campaign. 

It was Takagi's fourth win in the 1,000 out of six World Cup circuit competitions in a season that started in November 2023 in Obihiro, Hokkaido Prefecture. She finished the race in 1 minute, 14.19 seconds (a track record at Centre de Glaces), which was 0.88 seconds faster than Dutch rival Femke Kok.

Miho Takagi
Miho Takagi (KYODO)

Miho Takagi Assesses Her Overall Performance in World Cup Season

After the race, Takagi, now 29, said her rhythm at the outset of 1,000-meter races is a key to what she's accomplished in the event this season.

"I am beginning to get a feel for accelerating at the start of the 1,000," the Hokkaido Prefecture native said, according to Kyodo News.

In addition to winning the aforementioned season title in the 1,000, Takagi extended her World Cup circuit reign in the 1,500 to three consecutive season titles. She cemented the 1,500 title by impressively winning the first five World Cup races in the event.

Another reminder of her place in the ultra-fast sport's global pecking order: At the 2022 Beijing Olympics, Takagi collected three silver medals (500, 1,500 and team pursuit) and grabbed her first individual Olympic gold (in the 1,000).

Assessing Takagi's overall performance and physical condition in early February, de Wit has high hopes for his talented protégé.

"It looks like she's getting better and better," de Wit told Odds and Evens.

Miho Takagi
Women's 1,500-meter winner Miho Takagi (center) stands with runner-up Antoinette Rijpma-de Jong (left) and third-place finisher Marijke Groenewoud, both of the Netherlands, at a World Cup Speed Skating meet on December 2, 2023, in Stavanger, Norway. (KYODO)

Preparing to Perform Well at the Single Distances World Championships

Optimism can be a positive catalyst for athletes. But having productive training sessions and being dedicated throughout the year during workouts can often have greater significance.

And now, the World Cup season is in the metaphorical rearview mirror. With de Wit's guidance, Takagi is focusing all of her energy on getting ready for the world championships.

"I'm happy to have won the season championship," she was quoted as saying by Kyodo News after clinching the title in the 1,000. "But now it's about building up for the next thing, where I'll want to peak."

Is she peaking performance-wise for the world championships? 

De Wit said that appears to be the case.

Miho Takagi
Speed skater Miho Takagi and coach Johan de Wit in an October 2023 file photo. (©︎Toru Yaguchi)

According to de Wit, one factor driving Takagi's focus to peak at the right time is the never-wavering emphasis on being ready to shine at the world championships.

"We love to compete," de Wit said. "For us, the World Cup events are important competitions. But by far the main goal is [success] at the World Single Distances Speed Skating Championships."

Beyond the glory of winning world titles, de Wit also noted that funding for speed skating, which is provided by national sports federations, is greatly impacted by how national representatives perform at the world championships. 

In this results-driven business, cycling and jogging are core components of Takagi's overall training program. 

Miho Takagi
Miho Takagi races around the oval in a 1,000-meter race en route to victory during a World Cup meet on February 2 in Quebec City, Canada. (KYODO)

It's just a shoe!

Endurance Training Bolsters Speed

At times, daily workouts organized by de Wit for Takagi and other members of Team Gold (the Dutch coach's training squad), include a big focus on endurance. Takagi, for one, must complete 20-25 kilometers on the ice. 

The coach broke it down this way: In 10 minutes, a skater will complete about 18 400-meter laps (7,200 meters in total). Thus, reaching the targeted 20-25 km will take approximately 30 minutes.

For speed skaters, strengthening leg muscles is one clear-cut evidence of these rigorous workouts.

Another is how well-conditioned muscles can perform.

De Wit mentioned that Takagi and other top female skaters can zoom around the track at speeds reaching 55-56 kilometers per hour. 

Miho Takagi
Miho Takagi hugs Japan speed skating coach Johan de Wit after setting an Olympic record (1 minute, 13.18 seconds) and winning the gold in the women's 1,000 meters at the 2022 Beijing Olympics.

A Love for Competition

Indeed, there's an adrenaline rush for speed skaters that fuels their competitive drive.

Coaches can motivate their skaters, and this may prove helpful for some. For others, though, an innate trait seems to define their competitive existence. De Wit pointed this out during our wide-ranging discussion about Takagi and speed skating at large.

His ambition as a coach? "See that they like to fight," which is perhaps the simplest way of stating that there's a motivational factor at play every time a speed skater competes.

Watching events unfold, de Wit also takes a step back in terms of delivering instructions and detailed tactics to skaters. Details have already been explained again and again.

"What I really hope is our athletes compete with their hearts, not their heads," de Wit told me.

"For me, the most interesting thing [to observe] is if they are at the starting line and they give everything they have."

Based on the results in recent weeks and months, Takagi has provided ample evidence that she continues to give everything she has as a speed skater.

In a thorough analysis tracing Takagi's career path from high school days to the present, de Wit observed that "everything developed gradually" for her. He cited body control during races and a mature mindset as prime examples.

And now? 

In short, the coach said, she's equipped to excel. 

"Not many speed skaters are developed like Miho Takagi," de Wit stated.

Takagi, who is ranked No 1 in the 1,000 and 1,500, will compete in the individual races on February 17 and 18, respectively, in Calgary. She’ll also skate in the team pursuit event (February 16).

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Author: Ed Odeven

Find Ed on JAPAN Forward's dedicated website, SportsLook. Follow his [Japan Sports Notebook] on Sundays, [Odds and Evens] during the week, and X (formerly Twitter) @ed_odeven.

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