Most people remember Takeda Haya as the firecracker high schooler who unexpectedly stole the hearts of the media in 2004's Olympics, a rebellious, outspoken young girl whose performances in the women's platform earned her national recognition but failed to put into her hands that which eludes so many athletes, no matter how driven: Olympic gold. Since 2004, Takeda has continued to lead Japan's diving team -- except for the devastatingly bad 2007 season, reclaiming her place as co-captain of the Japanese diving team which faces an elite Chinese squad that is far and away expected to triumph across the board. We caught up with Takeda this week at a shoot for one of her sponsors, Nike, as part of our series of Olympic spotlights leading into Beijing to find out just what it's like to face that kind of pressure, how she feels about her place as an athletic role model, and just what has happened in the four years since she was last so prominent within the national spotlight. Dressed in a button-down army shirt with her hair fauxhawked for the photo shoot and sporting a huge hole in the knee of her jeans, it was safe to say that at least some things about this feisty diver haven't changed at all.
JLW: How do you prepare for something like the Olympics? With less than a month left, how are you handling the pressures and responsibilities headed into Beijing?
TH: Well, you prepare for it like anything else, ideally. We let ourselves get too psyched up by the circumstances surrounding what we do, you know. Students get nervous for their exams, musicians get nervous for their concerts. But in the moment when that thing -- whatever it is -- happens, you're only repeating something you've already done. So it's important to realize that every dive I'm going to do in Beijing I've done hundreds of times, and not to let the fact that I'm doing it in a fancy building in front of more people get to my head. That's something I control, and if I lose sight of that, then other people are controlling me destiny. And that's what I try to tell our younger athletes too -- the kids who've never been before, regardless of whether they're diving, or playing baseball, or track. And Fujiwara was kind enough to grant me academic leave this semester so I haven't had to worry about my studies.
JLW: Some sports writers have noticed you're not always at the national practices, though...
TH: (Laughs) That's true. I've been logging some of my practice hours with a trainer in New York City. It's very tiring, but the fresh perspective is extremely helpful. I wouldn't trade it for the world.
JLW: That explains it, then. Is that kind of travel hard?
TH: Not really. I'm sorry to say that I'm not actually that great a student, so if you give me a hard surface and five minutes, I can fall asleep on it. So I sleep on the plane and when I wake up it's day in wherever it is I'm flying to. I know that's hard for other people to deal with, though. I guess I'm fortunate. (laughs again)
JLW: Most people don't notice this but you've actually described yourself as a very devout Buddhist in prior interviews. Do you share any of the international concern about Beijing's human rights record...?
TH: We've been asked by our coordinators and our politicians not to discuss the human rights issue. The Olympics isn't about politics.
JLW: I think some people would say that the Takeda Haya of 2004 might have answered that question a little differently!
TH: That's probably true. But the Takeda Haya of 2004 would also have gotten yelled at by her coaches and I'd rather spend that time in the pool than out of it getting chewed out! (Laughs again) In all seriousness, I respect our coaches a lot more now than I did back then and I'd hate to upset them.
JLW: Fair enough! Let's change subjects for a moment -- leading into the Olympic trials a lot of sportswriters expressed concern that after the 2007 season you were unfit to compete, at the end of your career and past your prime. One gossip columnist cited an anonymous source saying that your emergency hospital trip in 2006 was the result of a miscarriage. Can you talk to us about that season, and how you fought back from suspension?
TH: Well. The sportswriters and the gossip columnists had a banner year that year, didn't they? I don't have anything to say about the things that happened, but I think one of two things happens to athletes -- they lose their fitness or they lose their motivation. In my case it was the latter, and it's pretty easy to understand, really. I had a high-profile engagement that broke off and the press wasn't nearly as unforgiving as I was to myself. I really mean that. And then you start wondering about what it means to win anyway and who you're winning for. 2006 and 2007 were question years for me. I had to do a lot of searching. We have a society that focuses a lot on the result -- on the winning itself, the medal, the reward. Those things can seem pretty pointless.
JLW: And 2008?
TH: 2008 is the year of answers.
JLW: Care to explain?
TH: I won't ... But I will say that when I didn't win a medal in 2004 I was devastated because I'd made that the most important thing. Well, that's stupid. You don't have any control over the judges -- you can just go and do your best. So that's what I'm going to do, and if I win a medal, that's really secondary. There are more important things in life than winning, especially on the Olympic stage. So I'm just going to try to enjoy it, try to be a good representative of what I want people to see from my country, and do my best -- maybe even get a personal best, that would be great. What happens happens. Maybe that's the biggest difference since last time. That's a personality difference; it's got nothing to do with the physical act of diving at all.
JLW: So you care less?
TH: No ... I care just as deeply, but I care smarter, I care better.
JLW: What about Rong Jin-Xing, two years after the fact?
TH: My understanding is that he's left the public eye, and I can sincerely say that I wish him nothing but the best and the most perfect of happinesses, wherever and however he finds himself.
JLW: Personally -- and I'm sure I speak for our readers too -- I think the story, what you've overcome, it's really fantastic and very inspiring. You're a real survivor.
TH: Thank you, but it's not something that just gets accomplished, that looks pretty and goes into a book -- or even a magazine like this one. It was hard. It is hard.
JLW: Let's talk about this campaign with Nike.
TH: Phew! Yes, let's. (Laughs) What do you want to know?
JLW: You have a sponsorship with several large firms, first as an Olympian, a diver, and of course a model.
TH: Which for the record I don't get at all. I'm just saying. There's hotter chicks out there. But, yeah, we have Nike and Puma and Speedo contracts so I have a certain number of shoots and promotions to do to help those sponsors out. Some people say it's really commercialized the Olympics since we all have to turn into spokespeople, but I think it's really great. Young athletes get to go all around the world because of corporate sponsorship. I've seen almost every continent! So taking some pictures isn't a big deal.
JLW: This particular campaign is generating a lot of buzz -- it features another Fujiwara student -- and international music sensation, Jang NaRim. My specialty isn't marketing, but that seems like a strange mashup.
TH: Yeah, I've heard that before. But I've sat in on some of the direction meetings and it's actually really interesting. I think NaRim and I get classified as -- what do they call it ... androgynous figures, a lot. He has some feminine qualities and I get told I'm like a boy all the time. So it's this new take on the battle of the sexes. I actually like it a lot, and that's not just because I'm not having to do this stereotypical flash tits type of photoshoot -- can I say that in an interview? Whatever. It's not porny. Hey, I probably can't say that either. Anyway, NaRim's one of my best friends, actually. I adore him and he's tons of fun to work with. I don't think he realizes this but when he walks into a room it lights up. That's why people love him. That and his dimple, which should be researched, and probably weaponized at the forefront of pacifism. So whenever people want to fight wars they just deploy NaRim's dimple and the other side goes, "S**T, OKAY, WE QUIT."
JLW: You can't say that in an interview either!
TH: I just did, didn't I? I've got to give you guys something to write about or everyone's gonna say I've gone soft. Here, have another: F**K.
JLW: Do you know anything about his hiatus?
TH: Not a clue. I show up in trackpants, he shows up in trackpants, people take pictures, we inhale coffee. Rinse and repeat. I never see the music people. I think he'll be back, though -- he better be! I like his music!
JLW: Fair enough. Fujiwara University's really coming into the spotlight lately, don't you think? Three Olympians in the athletics department, including yourself, is a pretty big accomplishment for your school.
TH: Yeah. But that's what Fujiwara does, it takes the best. Although what most people don't know is that I almost didn't get to go to Fujiwara at all!
JLW: No way.
TH: Yeah. I came back from a meet in highschool and wore my brother's uniform because mine weren't clean. And got into serious trouble -- they actually expelled me. And now here we are, four years later.
JLW: Would you do it again?
TH: There are very few things I wouldn't do again -- that's not one of them! It looks like they're about to send me into makeup, so you'd better hurry.
JLW: That sounds like the Takeda Haya we know and love. Okay, so, last question -- if August goes according to Takeda Haya's plan, what happens?
TH: I enjoy myself in Beijing, meeting new people and catching up with my international friends on the diving circuit. My family will be there, too, so that's really important, because I love them. And, like I said, the medal thing is really out of my hands, so I've just got to go in and give it my all. At the end of the day I want to feel like I've closed this chapter of my life in a way that lets me keep feeling good about myself. Gold medals are great but they don't buy self-esteem, they don't keep you warm at night, and we tend to forget that when Olympic season comes around. This is my last Olympics as a competitor, so I'd say I should go out with a splash, but that'd be a really lousy pun to end this on, huh? Oh, shoot, I did it anyway. Well. Tell everyone I'm sorry for being totally lame. University makes you nerdier.
JLW: Far from lame at all, Takeda-san. Best of luck to you!
TH: Thank you very much.
the note in sharpie reads:
The whole time this interview went on all I could think about was your hands; their bone structure and they way they get veiny when you smoke. The way they get paint chips under the nails that don't come off with water, like all those times the shower failed to rinse the mud away. I thought about the way your knuckles crack and how your fingernails are chipped. About your long fingers, skinny like the rest of you, and my small girly hands.
What they look like tied in mine and what they do to me.
We’re going to Egypt, someday, by the way. Because I think you’d look hilarious on a camel.
I love you and I always, always miss you (and your hands) --
YOURS: TAKEDA HAYA #01