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HPU's "Golden Girl"- Kusutani stays the course

by Chuck Cordill, staff writer


Some people seem sure of their destiny as soon as they take those first, faltering steps as a toddler. Others discover their calling in intermediate or high school, maybe even college. Some never discover their true calling—a human tragedy. And then there’s the “late bloomers,” the folks who find themselves midway through their existence. At 43 years of age, HPU All-America cross country runner Sayuri Kusutani is a Japanese national who’s a somewhat reluctant champion for those who feel the weight of time progressively growing heavy upon their shoulders.

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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 the opportunity.

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 well.

“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?”



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