“If you smile, I’ll be fine too.”Yuki’s LINE message to Sayaka (Trans by Sebastien @sebad110)
Is it ok to write about FukuHiro? No Japanese Women’s Doubles medal in Tokyo would have been unimaginable six months ago but the top seeds were knocked out at the QF stage. This does not even scratch the surface of Yuki and Sayaka’s Olympics.
The badminton world was staggered when Sayaka arrived on court and revealed a heavy knee brace on her right leg. Despite the catastrophe that had befallen her the Gold medal favourites had decided to come and fight.
Sooner or later, we have to accept that for all the time spent on analysis of games and players a match will always end in victory or defeat. Nevertheless, at the Olympics the reaction of these two athletes to a serious injury subverted this into an honourable display that showed the strength of their partnership and their love of badminton played together.
The first match facing Birch/Smith was a chance to see if they could win on three and a half legs. Unbelievably they battled through in two sets. Fukushima carried a big burden: she ran for two whilst Hirota tried to avoid the back line. Their tactics succeeded: 21-13 & 21-14. There had to be a focus on keeping playing time to a minimum and the stats show that the longest rally was 54 strokes with the average length at 11. In the next game against CHOW/LEE the Malaysians seemed prepped to exploit her restricted movement and got the first set but nerves took over and the self-confidence of the Japanese saw them win the following two sets. This time the longest rally was 76 strokes with an average length of 13 per rally.
After the first game Hirota had described herself as at 70-80% and admitted that she had been injured during training on June 18th. She later said:
“It’s like it became pitch-black. I thought it was impossible to go to the Olympics anymore. I felt very sorry for Fukushima-senpai”Interview in NHK translated by Sebastien.
After an MRI scan, she was diagnosed with an ACL tear in her right knee plus damage to her meniscuses and lateral collateral ligament. She described it as a “desperate time”. A specialist advised surgery but agreed – after two weeks rest from training – that it was feasible to wait until after the Olympic tournament. The Donjoy-style brace she wore was designed to redeploy the way playing pressure impacted on her damaged knee. The stress goes to the healthy parts and away from aggravating the pain.
The final group game was their first loss. Greysia Polii and Apriyani Rahayu had to work hard over three sets but in the end, they just could not find a way through. This meant they had come second in Group A and would meet CHEN/JIA in a quarter final. Even if they had both been fit this tie would have been daunting. The Chinese are superb players; strong and smart so they knew they were in for a difficult day. Yuki’s LINE message to her partner that evening read
“…tomorrow regardless we win or lose, I want us to enjoy the match…Let’s overcome this together. Let’s speak together. If you smile, I’ll be fine too.”Trans by Sebastien.
It was a brutal physical test and after three sets their goal of a home Olympics medal was gone. At the end they faced the world with tears and their arms around each other. The Chinese players’ sporting behaviour added to the emotion of the moment. Games like this can be very hard to spectate.
Sayaka has a hard six months of rehab ahead but her courageous attitude and the support of Yuki will sustain her. Fukuhiro’s Olympics was tragic and wonderful. I’m so sorry that they were not able to compete to 100% of their ability but seeing their reaction to heartbreak was inspiring. Their bravery and commitment shone through disappointment; the dream has not been lost, only delayed until Paris 2024.
If you enjoyed this then take a look at my earlier article about Fukuhiro https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2019/11/06/japans-fukuhiro-can-they-win-tokyo-gold/
Thank you to Sebastien for letting me use their translations of interviews in Japanese and also thank you to all the Fukuhiro fans out there who shared ideas and chatted about the Olympic journey with me.
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