An “over-40” runner competing at the collegiate level, a “poster
girl” for maturity, the antithesis of the “can’t teach an old
dog new tricks” axiom, Kusutani seems oblivious to the apparent
connotations of her endeavors and the predictable made-for-media
potential it presents.
The “Sayu” Kusutani story isn’t simple. She isn’t the kind
of woman who easily fits into a pre-fabricated mold. She is
a living portrait of irony, a dictionary illustration for the
word “paradoxical,” but in the end, it all comes down to running.
She has heard the numerous questions about age, the questions
about a lady from Japan who, midway through her life, makes
waves in the running world. Kusutani politely answers those
inquiries in her self-deprecating style, clarifying that first
and foremost in this chapter of her life, she is a runner.
“Many people ask about my age,” said Kusutani. “But honestly,
I don’t think about it all that much. I know that some races,
especially in the States, have separate age divisions. But all
I am worried about is the overall standings; Who finishes first.
No matter what age you are, everyone on the course is competing
for the top spot.”
As the elder stateswoman of the Sea Warrior team, Kusutani
has assumed part of the leadership role. This year she thinks
of her effort in terms of the “team” total in addition to her
personal best. “I ran a race recently where I was in the front
pack, but I took a wrong turn on the course,” said Kusutani.
“I fell behind and realized I would finish behind. I was discouraged
and thought about giving up. But then, I thought about our team
standings and resumed the course. I ended up winning the race
and we finished with better results.”
Since coming to HPU in the fall of 2001, Kusutani made an immediate
impact on the school’s cross country program, aiding her teammates
in establishing the Sea Warriors as one of the premier collegiate
running programs in the state. She finished last season with
a trip to the NCAA II National Championships, finishing 24th
in the top 25 to earn All-America honors. She has placed first
in three races so far in the 2002 campaign. Not bad for a woman
who entered her first competitive road race at the age of 38.
In 1998, Kusutani was teaching English at a private school
in Japan. In her spare time, she played tennis at a competitive
level, well enough to achieve national rankings. She jogged
for relaxation and as part of her training regimen. A friend
persuaded her to enter a local race. Kusutani finished first.
Her friend, Toshiyuki Chido, offered to be her unofficial coach.
He analyzed her results, pulse rate, and physical makeup and
presented Kusutani with a proposition. She could continue her
pursuit of tennis, and perhaps be the best in her Prefecture,
or, she could run and achieve global recognition. Kusutani decided
to run. She went on to win several more races in her home country
and decided to enter a world-class event—the Berlin Marathon.
Kusutani’s preparation for Berlin shows much about the make-up
of this complex woman. Normally cautious, she quit her job,
set her sights, and focused on the event.
“I tend to look at what is in front of me and try my best
at it,” said Kusutani. “In the Chinese Zodiac, I am a boar.
I feel as if I am a wild boar--running straight ahead and not
looking to the side.”
To understand Kusutani is to take in a piece of art with contrasting
themes. She is self-effacing and almost embarrassed about discussing
her accomplishments. She repeats the mantra, “I’m always so
lucky,” with a nervous giggle. But she has a quiet confidence
in her voice. The diminutive, soft-spoken woman admits that
under the surface, she has a strong passion to win, to do her
very best. Yet, despite numerous victories, she is unsatisfied.
Kusutani feels that when she reaches the zenith, that sense
of complete satisfaction, there will be no more reason to push
forward. It would be time to retire.
In Berlin, Kusutani finished 16th overall in the women’s division.
It was September of 2000 and she had reached a plateau. She
decided to “retire” from racing. She took several weeks off
to travel and relax, as well as doing some soul searching to
plan the next chapter in her life. Realizing that she needed
to improve her English conversational skills, she persuaded
her parents to let her go to America for study. Hawai‘i wasn’t
on her itinerary.
“I have an adventurous spirit,” Kusutani explained. “I knew
that there were many Japanese in Hawai‘i and the West Coast,
so I wanted to go to the Midwest or East.” But she came to the
islands for a three-month English refresher course. In retrospect,
she feels she made the right decision.
“I fell in love with the people, with the land,” said Kusutani.
“I realized what a special place this was and why people from
all around the world come here.”
During her initial stay, Kusutani decided to enter the 2001
Great Aloha Run. At the starting line, she saw thousands of
participants and realized the magnitude of one of Hawai‘i’s
premier sporting events. When she was the first woman to cross
the finish line, the significance was even more apparent.
“I had no idea the race was so big,” Kusutani marveled. “I
finished first and was in the middle of Aloha Stadium with all
these cameras and reporters asking me questions. People were
cheering, coming up to congratulate me. My English wasn’t as
good then, so I just hoped they wouldn’t ask too many questions.”
With her English program complete, Kusutani returned to Japan
and resumed teaching, but still felt less than confident in
her English skills. She discussed with her parents the possibility
of returning to Hawai‘i for additional classes, but they were
lukewarm. Then Kusutani got a phone call. HPU Head cross country
Coach Vien Schwinn offered a scholarship. Kusutani embraced
At HPU she further demonstrated her individual complexity.
She entered the Masters Program in Diplomacy and Military Studies,
a field largely populated by career military officers. The balancing
of academics and athletics tested her as never before. Her frustration
was multiplied by her intense inner drive for perfection. She
wanted to excel in the classroom and on the running field as
“It got to the point where I wanted to quit,” recalled Kusutani.
“I couldn’t do it anymore. I was ready to give up and return
to Japan. I had to tell myself, just do it one more day, and
I focused on the immediate things in front of me, one day at
a time. I still struggle with all the demands, but it helps
to look at my life in this way.”
Kusutani recalled the insanity of last year’s NCAA II National
Championships. She trained hard, she wanted to win. But she
also spent every spare moment with textbooks. Nationals fell
right about the time several of her key academic projects were
due. She didn’t even have time to soak in the true significance
of the experience.
This year, things are a bit different. Kusutani has put her
social life on hold so she can concentrate on running. True,
she might still have a final paper or two to work on, but the
more she gets done on the academic side, the more freedom for
the wild boar within to run her course.
Kusutani admits things are still tough, but she has a little
better grasp on how to handle the life of a student athlete
than last year. She’s getting better in her conversational English,
but still has yet to master the “southern drawl.”
“One of my classmates, a military officer, is from the deep
South,” said Kusutani. “He gave an oral presentation in class
and our instructor asked for a question and answer session afterward.
I wanted to ask him, “Could you repeat the whole thing again?”