Column flashback … sailor Kojiro Shiraishi

June 10, 2007



Shiraishi credits sailing career to mentor Tada


Published in The Japan Times
“Ask yourself when you last spent a single day with no human contact — then multiply this by 100!” — VELUX 5 OCEANS pre-race press release.

This was the challenge faced by eight extraordinary sailors during their around-the-globe competition, the VELUX 5 OCEANS, from October 2006 to May.

Kojiro Shiraishi, a Tokyo-born, Kamakura-raised sailor, completed the 48,280-km (30,000 mile) odyssey in 118 days, 1 hour, 42 minutes, reaching Bilbao, Spain, aboard Spirit of Yukoh in second place behind Bernard Stamm of Switzerland, who got there 15 days earlier.

There were only two stops along the way: Fremantle, Australia, located on the nation’s west coast, and Norfolk, Va. In between, the sailors braved the conditions — isolation, storms, winds, heat, cold — all the while managing themselves and their 18.2-meter (60-foot) yachts.

To reach Perth, Western Australia, the sailors traveled south beyond Africa’s southernmost tip and then headed east toward Western Australia. From there, they sailed westward, passing South America’s Cape Horn and then traveling north past countries including Argentina and Brazil before reaching Virginia. The journey’s final leg was a straight shot across the Atlantic Ocean to the northern Spanish city.

“Sixty-foot yachts are normally racing by a crew of 10-15,” a VELUX 5 OCEANS press released stated. “Sailing on one’s own is the ultimate test for the individual sailor.”

The journey began on Oct. 22 in Bilbao and officially came to an end May 6 in the same Spanish port city, where VELUX 5 OCEANS race director Dave Adams made these remarks about Shiraishi at the Palacio de Congresos y de la Musica:

“They should be extremely proud of him in Japan and I know his mentor Yukoh Tada would be extremely proud. He was fantastic and we all wanted this result for him, his family and supporters.

“I first met him in this race in 1990 when he was shore crew for Yukoh Tada. Koji has stepped up to the mark and he should walk away with his head held high.”

The VELUX 5 OCEANS, also dubbed the Ultimate Solo Challenge, began in 1982. It was previously known as the BOC Challenge and later called Around Alone.

Tada, a well-respected yachtsman in Japan, was employed as a taxi driver and also spent time as a musician and poet. He won his class in the 1982 BOC Challenge, and then became Shiraishi’s mentor in 1986.

“I was so impressed by what Tada had done that I went to look for him,” Shiraishi, who turned 40 in May, told The Sunday Times of London. “I just got the phone book, found his house and knocked on the door.”

It was a life-changing encounter.

A graduate of Kanagawa Misaki Fisheries High School and Yokohama National University’s education department, Shiraishi worked closely with Tada and observed the master’s seamanship techniques and life lessons.

“Tada-san didn’t necessarily teach me everything about sailing,” Shiraishi told reporters. “Instead the invaluable lessons I learnt from him were to hold on to my own identity, always enjoy life and care for my closest friends and family. I learned ‘how you can enjoy your life.’ Yukoh Tada was a cheerful, warm man that could be described as a ‘spring wind.’

 Tada committed suicide in 1991 in Sydney after withdrawing from the BOC Challenge.

Shiraishi never forgot his master. He was on board Tada’s 15.2-meter ship on the long, hard journey back to Japan. And then he fixed it up (it had been capsized six times during the BOC Challenge) and renamed it Spirit of Yukoh in Tada-san’s honor.

In 1993-94, Shiraishi embarked on his first solo journey around the world. He completed the nonstop trek, which covered 46,115 kilometers, in 176 days, becoming the youngest sailor in the world to circumnavigate the globe.

Clearly, Shiraishi’s sailing career is a tribute to Tada.

Consider: the pupil placed fourth in the Around Alone’s 40-foot class competition in 2002-03, his second solo journey around the world.

“The best inspiration I have had during the race was Yukoh Tada and I wouldn’t be here without him,” Shiraishi said.

What Shiraishi referred to as Oriental ideology — “what I can always do is . . . be calm, wiping away things I should not think (about)” — helps guide him on the open seas.

He added: “In solo sailing, I think it is important to maintain a constantly optimistic attitude: keep yourself emotionally stable — not too happy, not too sad and not too angry.”

On his Internet home page, Shiraishi details his involvement with the Wish Achievement Project and is an advocate for better education in Japan.

Outside the classroom setting, he embodies the qualities of a classic hero.

But he refused to take all the credit. Sponsors, shore crew, publicists and others all play vital roles for these costly adventures.

“I believe the team work is absolutely critical. Getting the right blend of people that can work together happily is a great achievement,” Shiraishi said.

Learning to excel against Mother Nature — man’s toughest opponent — is a remarkable accomplishment, too.

“Everybody has his or her own dreams, and when you talk about where you get the power to pursue your dreams, when you come up with a dream from the center of your heart, it will never disappear,” Shiraishi revealed at a recent news conference in Tokyo, where DVD highlights of the VELUX 5 OCEANS race were shown.

“Now I would like to educate more Japanese about sailing and teach young Japanese to sail and to achieve their dreams,” he said.

He’s already set a great example.



Revisiting the Spotlight on … Kitajima

July 30, 2009



No hurry for Kitajima to return to spotlight


Published in The Japan Times

With four Olympic gold medals on his sterling resume, breaststroker Kosuke Kitajima has already attained a level of success that millions of athletes can only dream of.

Now, with the spotlight on the 13th FINA World Championships being held in Rome, Kitajima, serving as a commentator for TV Asahi in the Italian capital, is content to be on sabbatical from the high-stakes pressure of elite competition.

This doesn’t mean, however, that once the world championships conclude Japan’s most famous swimmer can’t leave his comfortable new surroundings in Los Angeles and resume his possible quest for a third straight breaststroke double by returning to the Tokyo Swimming Center, his longtime training center, at any time.

The next Olympiad is still three years away. That’s a long, long time in athletics — light years in the eyes of astronauts — especially in the constantly changing world of Olympic sports.

Thus, this is certain: Kitajima, who turns 27 next month, doesn’t need to make any rash decisions today.

It’s perfectly sensible for him to continue training at the University of Southern California, where Trojans coach Dave Salo has helped guide his workouts. Salo, whose extensive coaching experience includes working with U.S. Olympians, could teach the gifted technical swimmer a few things as well.

 (It would be comparable to New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady picking up a few pointers from former Washington Redskins head coach Joe Gibbs in the offseason.)

I believe Kitajima can benefit from Salo’s coaching expertise while taking a break from his “normal” life in Tokyo.

(And really, how normal is life in a densely populated megalopolis where everyone knows your name and recognizes your face?)

In an interview with Swimming World Magazine in August 2005, Salo explained his coaching philosophy by saying, “I took the approach of trying to develop a ‘minimal model’ that would lead to peak performance. Specifically, I asked, what is the least amount of work a swimmer can do that will still allow him to produce his best possible performance? Back then, some of my critics thought I was trying to find the easy way out. Actually, what I’ve been trying to do is find the most efficient means to produce peak performance.”

Kitajima is an efficient swimmer, one blessed with speed, power and a phenomenal ability to excel in the biggest events. He’s also known for producing peak performance, and for that trademark skill credit must go to his longtime coach, Norimasa Hirai, who has guided him from his days as a standout junior swimmer as he developed into a world-class performer.

The recently married Hirai can probably also use a break from the high-pressure job of working with his top pupil.

For now, though, Kitajima is perfectly content to train at USC and have the opportunity to brush up on his English skills.

It’s a smart move for Kitajima.

As he has demonstrated over the years, he has benefited from participating in high-altitude training camps in Arizona by winning races and setting world records in the world championships and in the Olympics.

Watching several of those training sessions, I was left with this impression: He takes immense pride in every detail of his workouts, placing as much importance on the first stroke as he does on the final one.

But now, he has the enviable opportunity to take a break from his hectic life in Japan and set his own timetable for his return to elite-level competition.

And it’s better for him to do this now than in, say, 2011.


Kitajima has plenty of time to regain his competitive fire.

It’s natural for many elite athletes to lose motivation in the months after the Olympics. So it’s safe to suggest that Kitajima is in his comfort zone now, plotting his return.

According to recent news reports, Kitajima will make his much-anticipated return to the pool for Japan’s national championships next spring, and then set his sights on quality performances at the Pan Pacific Swimming Championships in August and the Asian Swimming Championships in November.

Kitajima has earned the right to step away from the spotlight. And if he decides that he doesn’t want to pursue another Olympic medal, then his experience in California for however long it will be, will just be a different sort of chapter in his life.

That said, people will be intrigued to see if Kitajima can capture gold medals in the 100- and 200-meter breaststroke at the 2012 London Games.

The waiting game is only in the opening stages, folks.


Column flashback…first visit to Okinawa

Jan. 30, 2007


All-Star game in Okinawa proves a slam dunk


Published in The Japan Times

GINOWAN, Okinawa Pref. — Never underestimate the impact of a dream.

Dreams are a vital element of our soul’s compass, of our innermost desires. Dreams offer some substance to our to-do lists, even if we don’t jot down those dreams next to the staples of our grocery shopping lists on a regular basis.

Saturday’s inaugural bj-league All-Star game provided a public forum for the realization of commissioner Toshimitsu Kawachi’s dream.

Okinawans young and old joyfully shared this dream with him. They reveled in the chance to be a part of something historic, something positive and, by golly, something fun.

You saw it in the eyes of everyone who was there — even hours before the game’s 4:30 p.m. tipoff at Ginowan Municipal Gymnasium.

You saw teenage break-dancers meticulously working on the moves they’d perform hours later during their upbeat show.

You saw elementary school students waiting patiently in line with their brothers, sisters and parents, clutching basketballs and notebooks they would ask to be autographed hours later.

You saw the antsy, yet animated Nishihara High School marching band members share a collective excitement as they counted down the minutes till they would share the same stage as their nation’s pro basketball stars.

You saw a colorful mix of Japan’s favorite NBA heroes — Michael Jordan and Allen Iverson jerseys — competing for your attention as you glanced at the long lines of fans sporting Osaka Evessa hats, Takamatsu Five Arrows T-shirts and, of course, Takanori Goya’s now-famous Toyama Grouses No. 1 jersey.

And then the game was played. It was a fast, well-paced game and all 20 bj-league All-Stars appeared in the contest. Center Julius Ashby of the Five Arrows and gravity-defying John “Helicopter” Humphrey of the Tokyo Apache played 32 minutes apiece to lead the way.

But Goya’s 26 minutes probably were the most appreciated.

Okinawa’s hoop fortunes received a positive jolt last spring when Goya was selected as the league’s No. 1 draft pick.

After the game — a performance he should be proud of (19 points, nine assists, four rebounds, two steals) — Goya reminisced about growing up in Okinawa and seeing the Japan National Team come to his beloved island for a game. He said that it was someday his dream to play basketball at that level.

Then he said the formation of the bj-league has greatly expanded the opportunity for the next generation of Japanese boys.

When asked about the expansion Okinawa Golden Kings joining the league next year, Goya said it’ll be a wonderful chance for the youngsters to have a chance to see the league’s players.

“I hope they (pursue) their dream,” he said through an interpreter. “I hope they are inspired to become basketball players, too.”

Clearly, Goya has embraced becoming a role model.

Clearly, he’s already made a positive impact on the league. And it’s not all about thunderous dunks, slick passes or smooth jumpers.

Goya is becoming one of the sport’s top ambassadors in Japan. He is an icon-in-the-making.

Fans roared with delight whenever he got the ball in Saturday’s game, which was won by Goya’s team, the East, 126-97 over the West squad. Goya’s dunks in the fourth quarter were cheered almost as wildly by the players (a nice show of class by the West All-Stars for recognizing and appreciating Goya’s following) as the fans.

In the hotel lobby on Saturday morning before breakfast, tourists uttered “sugoi” time and again while discussing the fact that a bj-league team will begin competition next fall. Similar statements were expressed by patrons and workers at an Okinawan eatery later that evening.

On Sunday afternoon, I left Naha City and took a 90-minute bus ride north to Onna Village, just up the road from Moon Beach. I stopped off at Yachimun Cafe Yushibin, where two artists were working and conversing quietly in the back of a shop filled with one of Okinawa’s most interesting hand-crafted art collections.

I chatted with the cafe owner’s wife, a former guard on a girls high school team in Nagasaki, while drinking a cup of coffee.

The kind, vivacious woman said Goya is immensely popular among young people today. (By the way, he’s got a cool Web site,

Approximately 1,600 km from the league’s Tokyo office, the bj-league planted the seeds for a successful future in Okinawa, cultivating a connection to the fans by doing things the right way.

Saturday’s action-packed day included a hoops clinic for Okinawa youth, the 3-Point Shootout, the Slam Dunk Contest, the All-Star Game and a nice blend of pageantry (local bands, local cheerleaders, local students all getting court time).

The bj-league deserves credit for working tremendously hard to make sure everyone left Ginowan Municipal Gymnasium feeling happy. And they did.

The mission was accomplished as emphatically as when MJ drove the lane unguarded and unleashed a mesmerizing jam.

In other words, the bj-league’s historic 2007 All-Star Game will be remembered this way:

A slam dunk.


Column flashback … John “Helicopter” Humphrey

Dec. 9, 2006


Apache’s Humphrey flying high in second season in Tokyo


Published in The Japan Times

John Humphrey possesses the bj-league’s best nickname.

The man affectionately known as “Helicopter” also owns a dazzling offensive game. Simply put, Humphrey is a scoring machine.

He led the bj-league in points per game a year ago (23.2). But the Tokyo Apache star has also elevated his game this season, scoring a league-best 31.2 ppg.

Humphrey is in the midst of a torrid stretch. He posted back-to-back 40-point games last weekend against the Oita HeatDevils. He had 38 in Tokyo’s win over the Toyama Grouses on Nov. 26.

And, boy, you can’t blame him if he’s tired.

Humphrey played 40 minutes in the game against Toyama and had an off-game from 3-point range, hitting 2 of 10 3-pointers, but made 7 of 12 on 2-point attempts and a jaw-dropping 18-for-18 from the charity stripe.

In the next two games, he went to the free-throw line with regularity and combined to take 83 more shots (including foul shots), helping the Apache complete their first 10 games with a 6-4 record. Let’s review. In the past three games, Humphrey had 118 points and took 123 shots.

That’s a season’s worth of offense for some seldom-used backups.

For Humphrey, it represents a job well done.

“You need points,” Apache coach Joe Bryant said Thursday at practice.

“You need that one player to be able to get you those kind of numbers.”

“I’ve always been a scorer,” Humphrey tells me, “but whatever it takes for my team to win (is my motto).

“If I score 50, or if I’ve got to score five and get 15 rebounds, whatever it takes for my team to win, that’s what I am going to do or try to do.”

Humphrey, a former Middle Tennessee State standout who has been a steady defensive presence for the Apache with 7.4 rebounds a game and several big-time blocked shots this season, came to Japan to play for Bryant, his former American Basketball Association coach, first in Las Vegas and then in Boston.

(As a Boston Frenzy player, Humphrey had a 65-point game.)

So if you want a time-tested answer about Helicopter’s playing ability, Bryant is the one to talk to.

“I really think he’s the best player in the league. . . . and also really what’s in his heart — his drive to win, his drive to be successful (is important),” the coach says.

“He feels that he’s never going to miss the shot and you like that as a coach. You need a player like that. I don’t know if you want to call it edgy. Sometimes we use the term cocky, but you want that player to be a little cocky.

“You want him to be able to accept being the hero or the goat. Now everybody can be the hero, but can you be the goat? That’s what makes him so dangerous.”

Growing up in North Carolina, the 26-year-old Humphrey heard all about then-freshman guard Michael Jordan’s high-arcing jumper in the final minute of the 1982 NCAA Championship Game against Georgetown, the title-clinching shot for Dean Smith’s Tar Heels.

Then he watched the NBA legend win game after game and six championships by sticking to his never-be-afraid-to-be-the-man persona.

“I always wanted to be that guy in the last second and the ball is in my hands,” Humphrey says bluntly.

But the muscular, 188-cm Humphrey, whom Bryant describes as a bowling ball when he’s attacking the defense, doesn’t just creep up on you as the final seconds tick off the clock. He commands attention for 40 minutes when he’s running, dribbling, jumping, shooting and dunking.

What’s Humphrey’s top offensive move?

“Going left, one or two dribbles and then just pulling up for a mid-range jumper,” Bryant says. “But he’s really capable of doing anything. He can go left, he can go right.”

He can go wherever there’s a game, but loyalty to his coach and teammates has always been No. 1 for Helicopter. “We had times in Vegas where (in) the ABA we weren’t getting paid,” Bryant says. “There were a couple of times in Boston where the guy ran out of money but we continued to play.

“John said, ‘Coach, if you stay, I’ll stay.’ And so we built that relationship. It wasn’t about money. It was about the love of the game. . . . He stayed and that showed me a lot about John as a person and the love of the game.”

Humphrey adds, “Basketball is not (just) a game to me. It’s something I love to do and I have a lot of passion for this. God gave me a lot of talent, so I am using it to the best of my ability right now.”

So how did he get the fantastic nickname Helicopter?

“I got it my senior year in high school,” Humphrey says. “A guy named Bob Gibbons (a high school hoops guru) back in the States, he ranks a lot of high school players and he saw me in a dunk contest at the ACC-SEC All-Star Game.

“My teammate at the time, Steve Blake, gave me and alley-oop and I caught it and did a 360 and dunked it.

“He called me ‘The Helicopter Assault Apache.’ It’s crazy because actually Apache was in there, so maybe I was destined to play for the Apache.”

Humphrey laughs. I laugh.

“That’s one of the names that really stuck,” continues Humphrey, who is called Humph, Copter, John and, of course, John-san by his Japanese teammates.

“In the heat of the moment with the adrenaline flowing, it connected,” Helicopter remembers. “We got it down. It felt real good. The crowd went wild, my teammates got pumped up, so it was something that felt great.”

He didn’t know it at the time, but that play proved to be his meal ticket to a basketball career. He has been a popular AND1 player for four seasons now, too.