From three-point sharpshooters to decorated grapplers, the Club’s cadre of young athletes proves that champions come in all forms.
All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. But who’s drawing the line between business and pleasure?
Poke your head into the Sky Pool or Gymnasium sometime and you might find more than a few Jacks and Jills who want nothing more than an extra hour of drills, fresh feedback from a coach or one more shot at proving themselves in competition.
But this shouldn’t come as any surprise. After all, the Club’s adult membership is peppered with former Olympians, one-time college standouts and ex-elite athletes. And now the combination of stellar sports facilities and experienced instructors at the Club is helping to produce a crop of young rising stars.
Making It Rain
It was only Kazuho Takashima’s second-ever time playing in a real basketball tournament with the Club’s TAC Eagles junior squad.
Surveying the competition, the 8-year-old saw plenty of players his age from schools scattered around the Club’s home ward of Minato.
Sure, the 1.2-meter-tall Kazuho (pictured top) was a little nervous, but it’s not the size of the dog in the fight.
Kazuho’s 11 points and seven assists in the Eagles’ first game of the tournament secured the team a “w” in the standings and provided the youngster with a shot of self-esteem.
“Now, basketball is more about shooting, not height,” the young Member says of basketball’s once-ironclad maxim. “If I work on my shooting, maybe I can go to the NBA.”
Kazuho made his first basket at the Club back in 2016. He’s been hooked ever since. When he’s not chatting about basketball with schoolmates, at home watching pro highlights on YouTube or heading to the Club for practice five days a week (plus private shooting, dribbling and footwork sessions with Eagles’ coach Dan Weiss), Kazuho is doing everything he can to get an edge on the competition—however taller they might be.
“On weekdays, I only get to practice two to three hours,” says Kazuho. “I can play for six or seven, though.”
When Weiss first met “Kaz,” he says his young student was a little trigger-happy. But it soon became clear that Kazuho was absorbing every pointer and game tip and making real strides toward becoming a more complete player.
“You can tell the kids who love the sport,” Weiss says. “They’re putting in their time and doing it the right way.”
Last summer, Kazuho got a taste of basketball’s biggest stage when the Toronto Raptors and the Houston Rockets squared off for a preseason exhibition game at Saitama Super Arena. After seeing the world’s top ballers in person, Kazuho has decided he’d rather not play alongside Houston forward James Harden when his big break comes.
“He never passes!” says Kazuho, cheekily, of the 2018 NBA Most Valuable Player. “But he might pass to me because I’m a good shooter.”
It’s apparent that Kazuho has already perfected the skill every three-point specialist needs: confidence.
“Next year [at the Minato tournament],” Kazuho declares, “our team is going to win.”
Shunsaku Kariyazono took New Year’s Day off. The following morning, though, it was time to get back to work.
It was his first match of the British Junior Open in Birmingham, England, and the 11-year-old knew it’d be a tough test. Since moving up to junior squash’s under-13 division last autumn, Shunsaku had made a clean sweep of the Japanese, Chinese and Korean tournaments.
The open would be his first time squaring off in a European competition against older and more experienced opponents.
“I used to be quite an aggressive player, but now I kind of changed my playing style,” says Shunsaku. “Being patient [on the court] is really important now.”
By the end of the preliminary rounds five days later, Shunsaku had defeated opponents from the host country, the Netherlands and the Czech Republic for an even record of three wins and three losses.
A fourth consecutive title wasn’t in the cards, and Shunsaku was keen to figure out exactly where his game had let him down.
“I want [to know] everything about my matches,” the Tokyo native says. “I like getting told what was positive and what wasn’t. It’s good to analyze yourself.”
When he’s not attending classes at Millfield Prep School, in southwest England, Shunsaku trains with the prestigious school’s band of young athletes, with special instruction from Ian Thomas, Millfield’s director of squash.
“[Shunsaku has] an attention to detail that’s very unusual in junior squash players,” says Thomas. “Shunsaku practices, discusses and watches video footage and practices again, with hunger.”
Perhaps that’s why Shunsaku is currently ranked seventh among under-13s in Asia. He’s also the top-ranked junior in all of Japan.
“Shunsaku understands that this is a journey,” says Thomas. “His resilience is becoming one of his strongest assets.”
And like any would-be pro, Shunsaku knows there are no shortcuts to the top.
“It’s really good to just continue [what you’ve been doing],” he says. “It’s always good to work hard.”
Might on the Mat
Noah Leibowitz could hardly believe his team had made it to the finals. An even bigger shock was his opponent: a female judoka who, several months prior, had beaten Noah with little effort.
“It was like my revenge match,” says Noah, 12, of the decisive bout at the 2019 Maruchan All-Japan Judo Championships.
As soon as the match started in Tokyo’s Budokan arena, judo’s spiritual home, Noah was nearly grabbed by the collar of his heavy cotton judogi uniform. As the pair grappled with one another, Noah managed to seize hold of his bigger opponent’s sleeve.
“I was, like, ‘I’m not going to let go,’” Noah recalls.
Noah planted a foot behind his opponent for an osoto gari throw. The 10,000-strong crowd roared. But his rival turned her hips against him. Noah quickly dropped low for an over-the-shoulder throw and pinned her to the mat.
He was oblivious to the din in the cavernous indoor stadium.
“I just thought, ‘I’ll never hold onto someone this hard in my whole, entire life.’”
Ten seconds later, it was over. The victory meant a championship for Noah’s dojo and the tournament’s MVP award, an accolade historically won by future judo grandmasters.
Noah’s winning ways aren’t restricted to judo, either. He is also an age-group national champion in Western-style wrestling. There’s little doubt Noah is a prodigious athletic talent, and neither he nor his father, Member David Leibowitz, shy away from discussing potential Olympic glory down the road.
“If [Noah is] going to do this or anything else,” says Leibowitz, 52, “then he’s going to try his hardest because all those other people he’s competing against are trying their best, too.”
Ask Noah and he’ll say that half of the battle in wrestling and judo is the sheer physicality of even the lightest training session. Cut one corner between now and the future, he knows, and you’re flat on the mat.
“There’s no BS in the training,” Noah says. “No excuses. If you’re going to do it, you have to do it with all of your might.”
Fitter, Faster, Stronger
Last spring, Ariana Hill’s competitive swimming career reached a new peak. Despite false-starting in her first event at New Zealand’s 2019 national championships, the then-13-year-old sprinter mustered the grit and focus to finish first in her age group in the 100-meter breaststroke finals.
It was a thrilling milestone, and she spent the following 12 months training both at the Club and in pools and competitions across Tokyo for another landmark moment: a successful defense of her national title at the 2020 tournament.
“When we heard [the national championship] was canceled, it was a bummer,” admits Ariana, 14, of receiving the news two weeks before she was due to burst off the starting blocks in Wellington. “But then we just kept on training.”
After digesting the disappointing update, Ariana returned to the Club’s swim team coach, Simon Hadlow, for direction on how to stay oriented in the current circumstances. Core strength and flexibility training may take precedence until the Sky Pool reopens, but Ariana’s mental fortitude, a key component of thriving under the pressure of elite-level competition, also stands to benefit.
“The positive from this is that athletes like Ariana will improve their time management and become more self-motivated and self-disciplined,” says Hadlow. “We just have to adjust to the current climate until we can get back to normal.”
In the meantime, Ariana will follow a familiar routine.
“Ariana knows the cycle: train, improve, compete, succeed, repeat,” says Hadlow.
The world might be mired in uncertainty, but the young swimmer has only one thing on her mind.
“I’m not looking up the news or anything like that,” Ariana says. “I just want to beat my best times and leave it all in the pool.”
Words: Owen Ziegler
Images: Yuuki Ide