First Japanese Athletes Take Flight at Drake Relays

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DES MOINES, Iowa -- With a tradition that dates back to the early 1900s, you would think the Drake Relays has seen it all.  "As Paul Morrison used to say, 'The Drake Relays is Des Moines' window to the world,'" said Blake Boldon, director of the Drake Relays.

Two Japanese athletes, Konomi Kai and Tamaka Shimizu, made the window a little bigger as they soared through the air in the long jump to become the first to represent Japan at the Drake Relays.  Boldon said, "Konomi Kai will be a favorite from a Japanese perspective.  She is the reigning national champ and Olympian in 2016. Tamaka is someone who they’ve identified as the future of women’s long jump in Japan."

Hosting the 2020 Olympic games in Tokyo, Japan has sent their athletes across the globe to gain international competition experience, hoping for a strong Olympic performance.  Through an interpreter, Tamaka said, "In order to go to the Olympics and do well she felt that she needed to sort of get used to competing with other international athletes and it helped to strengthen her as an athlete."  It was Tamaka’s first overseas trip alone.  Tamaka said, "When I saw the starting list, I got really nervous, but it became a good opportunity to learn how to shut everything out and just focus."

Everything took some getting used to.  Tamaka said, "The track was a lot harder than expected and thought it would be a little softer.”

The "Blue Oval" can intimidate even the most experienced athletes.  Tamaka used her fear as motivation that she hopes can turn her into an Olympian in 2020.  Tamaka's interpreter said, "At first failure may seem scary but you never know what is going to happen. You might fail but you also might do very well, so don’t be afraid of failure and do your best."

To remember her first competition in America, Tamaka took a souvenir from Iowa.  Tamaka's interpreter said, "She’s collecting Starbucks cups from a lot of places, so she wants an Iowa Starbucks cup."

Adding to an already rich history, the Drake Relays are offering the world’s first glimpse into the window of Japan's next great Olympians.  Tamaka said, "If I were to represent Japan at the Olympics, my goal would be to set a new Japanese record.

Konomi finished fourth in the women’s long jump.  Tamaka finished sixth.

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