Feature12 Mar 2021

Terada: from athletics to rugby and back


Japanese sprint hurdler Asuka Terada (© Gladys Chai von der Laage)

Japanese version / 日本語版

Asuka Terada’s career as a track and field athlete is unique.

She was a promising young athlete, breaking high school records and winning various national age-group titles. Not long after graduating from high school, she won her first senior Japanese title at the age of 18, clocking a Japanese U20 record of 13.05 in the process.

The performance earned her selection for the 2009 World Championships in Berlin, where she was the youngest in the 100m hurdles field. She ended that season by taking the silver medal at the Asian Championships.

But although her future seemed bright, she struggled with a series of injuries and an eating disorder, and in 2013 she decided to retire at the age of 23.

“I hated training. I was miserable every day,” she recalls.

When Tokyo was announced as host for the 2020 Olympics, Terada and her husband were very excited.

“We look forward to watching the Games,” she said. “I was not thinking about returning to sports at all. I just wanted to be a spectator.”

In 2014, after having a daughter, her career as an international athlete already seemed so distant.

But a turning point came in 2016 when she was asked to try out for the national rugby sevens team. Terada hated the thought of being tackled and feeling in pain, so at first she declined the offer. Her friends didn’t give up trying to recruit her, though, and eventually she agreed to give it a go.

Before she joined the rugby team, she had hoped that her natural speed would help her succeed in her new sport – and perhaps even carry her all the way to the Tokyo Olympics.

Terada soon started to make good progress on the rugby pitch, but after suffering a bone fracture during a match in May 2017 she was unable to play as she had hoped. In time, she realised that making the national team may be too ambitious a target.

One goal hadn’t changed, though: she was determined to make it to the Tokyo Olympics.

Back to track

Giving up rugby and returning to hurdling was an organic decision for Terada. Running had been part of her rugby training, while gym work and heavy weights helped Terada maintain her strength.

She was ready to return to her first sporting love.

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A post shared by 寺田明日香 terada asuka (@terada_asuka)

Terada resumed athletics training in early 2019 and it didn’t take long for her to return to the top spot in her country.

She finished third at the Japanese Championships in June and then set a national record of 12.97 in September. Not only did she become the first Japanese woman to better 13 seconds, she also qualified for the World Athletics Championships Doha 2019.

She headed to the Qatari capital with high expectations, but the competition didn’t quite go to plan.

After believing she was ready to compete with the world’s top athletes in what was her first global championships in 10 years, Terada’s lack of experience on the big stage was exposed and she finished fifth in her heat in 13.20.

“In Berlin in 2009, I couldn’t do anything, but I was only 19 years old at the time,” she recalls. “I thought that I could do something in Doha, but once again I couldn't do anything. It was frustrating.”

There were a few reasons behind her underperformance. After setting a Japanese record in early September, Terada was worried she’d lose fitness before the World Championships so she continued with heavy training sessions. As a result, she wasn’t at her sharpest when she arrived in Doha.

She also admits to overthinking during the race. When athletes started to pass her, Terada tightened up and she was unable to respond.

Terada shed tears after the race, but she was determined to make the most of her experience.

After the qualifying round, Terada went to the warm-up area every day to watch top athletes in action, monitoring their movements as they honed their skills.

“Kendra Harrison is my role model,” says Terada. “She is about the same height and leg length as me, and the way she hurdles with her leading leg is similar to mine. She is very quick and fast. I learned a lot from her.”

After Doha, Terada and her coach Takano watched race videos of Harrison and other hurdlers over and over again, absorbing their technique.

Terada rarely thought about running form when she was a teenager; she felt she didn’t need to, as her natural speed was so good. But her stint in rugby forced her to think about the best way to move.

“Rugby is not just about running straight, it's about stopping and running,” says Terada. “I have learned a lot from it. I have good sprint speed, so now I'm working on utilising my speed for running between the hurdles.”

Making her daughter proud

Terada’s daughter, Kao, travelled to Doha to cheer her mother on. When Terada failed to advance to the semi-final, Kao said matter-of-factly: “Mom, you're too slow.” But after Kao saw her mother’s tears, she added: “You did a great job, Mom.”

Six-year-old Kao then saw eventual winner Nia Ali and her daughter going on a lap of honour.

“Kao told me, ‘The reason why I can't participate in the winning run is that my mom is too slow, so you have to work harder for me’. She wants to be a special kid.”

In Doha, Terada was inspired by other athletes like Ali, Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce and Allyson Felix who had returned to the sport after becoming mothers. And while Terada’s daughter brings so much happiness, sometimes it’s hard to wear different hats.

"I don't have as much time for myself now, and no matter how tired I am, I need to take care of my daughter. I always fall asleep with her,” she says. “But having a family has brought me so much joy, and I don't have time to be depressed about the competition, which is a big benefit.”

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A post shared by 寺田明日香 terada asuka (@terada_asuka)

Terada recently returned from a training stint in Miyazaki as part of her preparations for the Olympic Games, where her goal is to reach the final.

Few sportswomen in Japan return to competitive action after giving birth, but Terada wants to buck the trend and hopes to use this year’s Olympic Games as a platform.

“In Japan many people say to female athletes who have children, ‘Your husband is very understanding and supportive’. But I don’t understand why people say something like that to women yet don't say it to men. I hope that the Tokyo Olympics will change their mind set.

“Around the world the number of athletes returning to competition after childbirth is increasing, and it’s becoming more common,” she added. “I saw such female athletes at the Berlin World Championships, and I thought it was cool, and I thought I wanted to be like them someday.

“I hope I can be an athlete who inspires young athletes.”

Ayako Oikawa for World Athletics










































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