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[ODDS and EVENS] Race Walking Standouts Getting Ready for the Paris Olympics

Japan's Koki Ikeda and Kumiko Okada were second in the marathon mixed relay race at the World Race Walking Team Championships, raising expectations for Paris.

As two of Japan's best in their chosen sport, Koki Ikeda and Masatora Kawano brought valuable experience to the 2024 World Athletics Race Walking Team Championships in Antalya, Turkey. Their independent experiences there should be helpful in preparing them for the Paris Olympics.

Ikeda paired up with Kumiko Okada, 32, and Kawano with Yukiko Umeno, 21, in the marathon race walk mixed relay on Sunday, April 21.

For this summer's Paris Games, the marathon race walk mixed relay is a new Olympic event.

Ikeda, men's 20-kilometer race walk silver medalist at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and the runner-up in the same event at the 2022 World Athletics Championships in Eugene, Oregon, left Turkey with another award for his collection. With the 25-year-old Ikeda leading off, he and Okada alternated the four stages of the mixed marathon event. They placed second overall with a time of 2 hours, 57 minutes, 4 seconds. Italy's Francesco Fortunato and Valentina Trapletti triumphed in 2:56:45.

Kawano, the men's 35-km race walk bronze medalist at the 2023 World Athletics Championships in Budapest, and Umeno finished 27th in 3:07:28.

Based on the overall race results (and as a nation that placed among the top-five finishers), Japan qualified to send two teams to France for the inaugural Olympic mixed relay competition.

"I was happy that Team Japan was able to clear the two slots as a whole, as I had set a goal of two slots," Ikeda was quoted as saying by Sports Nippon on April 23 after arriving at Narita Airport.

race walking
Koki Ikeda is the two-time defending national champion in the men's 20-km race walk. (©SANKEI)

A Desire to Compete in Race Walking

Ikeda told reporters at the airport that he's eager to participate in both the mixed team event and the men's individual 20-km race at the Paris Olympics.

Noting that there's a short period between the two events (August 1 for the men's race and August 7 for the marathon mixed relay), Ikeda emphasized that physical fitness will be a key factor for him.

"The men's team is very well-trained, so I am very encouraged," Ikeda said, according to Sports Nippon.

Okada expressed joy upon returning to Japan as a world medalist.

"It was the first medal for [me] as a senior competitor, so I'm very happy to have won a medal," she was quoted as saying by Nikkan Sports.

Okada, a two-time Olympian, brought a wealth of international experience in women's races to the mix as she teamed up with Ikeda.

As they pursued a world title, the thrill of the chase excited Okada, whose overall lead slipped away in the final kilometer of the 42.195-km race.

"I felt that flow is important in this event," commented Okada on the experience of this race, according to Nikkan Sports. "Ikeda brought it in first place, but I had never walked [in] first in a world competition before, so I was thrilled and excited."  

Koga Narrowly Misses Out on a Bronze Medal

Also Sunday, in the men's 20-kilometer event, Yuta Koga, 24, was Japan's top finisher, placing fourth, 3 seconds behind the bronze medalist, Diego Garcia Carrera of Spain (1:19.51). Sweden's Perseus Karlstrom was the winner in 1:18.49. 

After achieving victory, Karlstrom insisted he was hoping for blistering conditions throughout the race.

"Conditions were not as hot as I wanted, to take advantage of having spent two weeks here in Antalya, as last week we had 30 degrees," Karlstrom said, according to the World Athletics website. "It was a very comfortable win today. I felt so strong."

Koga was 12th in the same event at the 2023 World Athletics Championships.

On Sunday, the talent and depth of Japan's men's race walking squad was on display in Turkey. Aside from fourth-place finisher Koga, Satoshi Maruo (ninth), Tomohiro Noda (13th) and Kento Yoshikawa (18th) placed in the top 20.

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Testing Fitness Level and Race Walking Skills Against Top Athletes

In Turkey, Koga tested his fitness level and racing abilities against other world-class athletes.

Two days later, back in Japan, Koga told reporters he fell short of attaining all of his goals. Even so, it was a step forward.

"I was aiming for a prize and a team gold medal," Koga said, according to Getsuriku Online, the website for the Japanese-language monthly track and field magazine.

He added, "I am not [fully] satisfied, but I am satisfied that I have achieved a certain level of success."

For all of us, every journey begins with a first step. And for competitive race walkers, every race is another chance to set a new standard.

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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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