Nagoya, Japan

#UpAgain      #ShortTrackSkating

It will be a homecoming like no other for local hero Kazuki Yoshinaga (JPN) as the ISU World Cup Short Track Speed Skating series makes its second stop of the season in Nagoya, Japan this week. 

Yoshinaga hails from the city and when he took to the ice for the heats, the 22-year-old could see some very familiar faces at the Nippon Gaishi Arena: those of his parents.

They will, however, not be watching from the stands, with only a limited number of spectators allowed to attend the competition due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

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Kazuki Yosinaga (JPN) © International Skating Union (ISU)

His parents work as volunteers in the heat box and support skaters and team officials with issues on and off the ice. It is their way of giving something back to the community in which their son grew up. 

“Most parents whose sons or daughters are competing in Short Track work as volunteers for their prefectural skating federation. It’s to show our appreciation towards the community,” his mother Mika Yoshinaga explains.

“Together with my husband, I’m very proud of our son. Kazuki reached the level where he’s at today because of his hard work and dedication. But as his mother, I hardly ever watch his races at the venue. It just makes me feel too anxious.

“I know the dangers of this sport as a former professional skater. It’s so easy to crash or get injured. I don’t want to see that happen to my son.”

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Kazuki Yoshinaga (JPN) leads at the ISU World Cup Short Track Speed Skating, Beijing © International Skating Union (ISU)

Short Track and major competitions are at the heart of the family: his mother won three ISU Short Track Speed Skating World Championship silver medals in the early 1980s, and his aunt, Miyoshi Kato, represented Japan in Short Track and Speed Skating, competing in three Speed Skating events at the Lake Placid 1980 Olympic Winter Games as a 17-year-old.

Little wonder, then, that Yoshinaga took up the sport. His mother took him to watch Short Track races in and around Nagoya at the age of eight. During one of the first events he attended at the Nippon Gaishi Arena, he was hooked.

“I remember that one day I got to see a race here and we were sitting almost next to the ice rink. It was so exciting to see from up close the speed the athletes reached. It was at that moment I decided to start skating,” he said.

This season, skaters on the World Cup circuit are competing for quota spots for Beijing 2022. Yoshinaga showed flashes of form at the first World Cup stop in China, which also served as the official test event for February’s Games.  

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Kazuki Yoshinaga (JPN) prepares at the ISU World Cup Short Track Speed Skating, Beijing © International Skating Union (ISU)

His Japan team won the B final of the Mixed 2000m Relay and Yoshinaga narrowly missed out on bronze in the Men’s 1000m, a photo finish separating him and third-placed Pascal Dion (CAN) by only 0.001 of a second.

With the Olympics looming, the Special Olympic Qualification Classifications are based on the three best results achieved at the four World Cup events this season. Yoshinaga thus currently ranks fourth in the Men’s 1000m standings, with the top 32 skaters securing an Olympic ticket for the distance.

“It was a shame to miss out on the podium as I want to win medals and qualify for Beijing 2022,” said Yoshinaga, who represented Japan at PyeongChang 2018.

“I love the Olympics. It’s the biggest stage for any athlete and I want to be there again. It’s true that I’m starting to feel better and better but I just couldn’t make it to the podium last week. I’ll have to make it happen now.”

In front of his parents, that is, and his friends and family who will be supporting him from afar by tuning in to the live stream offered on the Skating ISU YouTube Channel.

“Everyone I know will be watching me. I’m a bit embarrassed that my parents will see me just before the start of my race. I don’t think I will be talking to them.

“But I still appreciate them very much for the mental support they give me and their hard work here. Now it’s up to me to deliver and hopefully win a medal in my hometown.”