(ATR) Shortly after receiving the International Olympic Committee's Coaches Lifetime Achievement Award in Lausanne, Masako Kaneko told Around the Rings she "was really surprised" by the recognition.
"Since there wasn’t the chance for coaches to be awarded up to now, I was really surprised," Kaneko told ATR in an exclusive interview. "I feel the responsibly of being honored."
Now 73-years-old, Kaneko, who trained Olympic synchronized swimming medalists such as 1988 Seoul Games double bronze winner Mikako Kotani, is the inaugural winner of the Coaches Lifetime Achievement Award.
She has contributed as both a swimmer and coach since the beginning of synchronized swimming in Japan. Kaneko began her synchronized swimming career with the Tokyo Synchro Club in 1959. After graduating from Tokyo Kasei Gakuin University in 1967, she stopped swimming for the club and became its coach.
By 1982, Kaneko was the National Team Coach and Director. She has coached or been the team leader of almost every competition in which Japan has competed since that year, including the Olympic Games and World Championships.
"I have run through my coaching career intently," she told ATR. "This award became an opportunity for me to look back at the tough times and the happy times. I am very grateful that this award focuses a spotlight on the people who work behind the scenes of the athletes."
Kaneko’s first overseas trip as Japan’s national coach was to Santa Clara, California in 1972. In 1979, she was selected as the Japanese Synchronized Performance Director. She was the team leader for the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles and again during Seoul 1988 and Barcelona 1992.
She became the head coach for the Atlanta 1996 Games before becoming a delegate of the Japanese Olympic Committee in Sydney 2000 and Athens 2004. She was team leader again for the Beijing 2008 and London 2012 Games.
As a coach, Kaneko is the only person to have coached swimmers to medals in every Olympic Games between 1984 and 2004 and also has coached medalists in every World Championships from 1978 to 2007 (with the exception of 1982).
Her swimmers include Hall of Famer Mikako Kotani, Junko Hasumi, Yuki Ishii, duos Miyako Tanaka and Megumi Itho, Fumiko Okuno and Aki Takayama as well as a litany of team medalists.
When asked which of her Olympic pupils’ achievements had the greatest impact, she said: "When my pupil Mikako Kotani won against her longtime rival French athletes at Olympic Games Barcelona 1992. This was when synchronized swimming was adopted to the Olympic programme for the second time. And when Japan won the medal against the Chinese team at the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games are two of my strongest memories."
In 1996, Kaneko became the first female Director of the Japan Swimming Federation.
For her contributions to the sport, Kaneko has earned many awards including the Women’s Sports Order from the IOC, the Ministry of Education’s Sports Achievement Award, the Citizen’s Cultural Award and the Avon Award.
Although she retired as the Synchronized Swimming Chairperson in 2009, she continues to teach at the Tokyo Synchronized Swimming Club where she is a club director and serves as a supervisor for the Japanese Swimming Federation. She is also a visiting professor at the Women’s College of Home Economics.
"I have retired from the front line, but I am passing on my difficulties and experiences to young coaches who will become the bearers of the Japanese team’s future," Kaneko said.
"It was my mission to build synchronized swimming to a major sport from a minor sport. I hope that the Japanese team will show their best performance as an artistic sport to fascinate the world."
In her final message to swimming coaches, the trainer said:
"Being a coach is of course not easy. However, I wish for young coaches to overcome the struggles which will bring happiness and joy. I hope they enjoy the difficulties of teaching as well and gain many experiences and develop their coaching skills."
Along with Kaneko, the IOC also gave the Coaches Lifetime Achievement Awards to retired American swimming coach Jon Urbanchek.
Written by Miguel Hernandez
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