KUBOTA Manaka: Inspired by her peers’ success, she is once again on the world stage in the Canoe Sprint!

Competing in the Canoe Sprint at the Tokyo 2020 Games

Canoe Sprint is an event held on a straight course with no current, where competitors start at the same time and race to the finish. Manaka Kubota represented Japan at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, where she participated in the newly adopted Women’s Canoe Single 200m and Canoe Double 500m events. We spoke with her about what she likes about Canoe Sprint, her enthusiasm as she keeps striving to reach her next goal, and her recommendations for places where you can enjoy Tokyo even more.

Canoeing as both competition and leisure

What was it that first got you interested in canoeing?
“I’d been swimming competitively from when I was less than one year old through junior high school with the hopes of making it to the national championships, but I wasn’t able to make it to that level. I started feeling stuck around my second year of junior high school, and then flyers for the Tokyo Junior Athlete Discovery & Development Project were handed out at my school. A friend of mine saw the flyer and suggested that we apply together, so I gave it a try. I applied to the project out of curiosity, and after seven events I got accepted and decided to take part in the canoeing development program.”

Of all the events to choose from there, were you interested in canoeing from the start?
“I’d always been a competitive swimmer, so I knew I wanted to do boating or canoeing, something that involved water. With my height being 157 centimeters, I was told that I was better suited to canoeing than rowing, so I started canoeing in earnest when I entered high school.”

How did you feel about canoeing after actually trying it?
“With canoeing, maintaining your balance is incredibly difficult. The canoe is about 5 meters long and weighs 10 kilograms, but it’s only about 50 centimeters wide. If you’re not used to it, it’s really easy to tip over and fall into the water. I wasn’t afraid of falling into the water at all, though. Just the opposite, it seemed fun! Once I was able to maneuver the boat well, I became fascinated by the beauty of the scenery that I could see from the water. I found it refreshing that canoeing was a sport you could enjoy not only in a competitive sense, but also as a leisure activity, because it allows you to take in the beauty of nature, such as the cherry blossoms and greenery in the spring, the blue summer skies, and the autumn foliage.”

The fun of the race being decided at the final moment

The canoeing event you compete in is the sprint, where everyone paddles as fast as they can to finish first. What are the particular appeals and highlights of the event?
“As a competitor, the thing I like the most about the event is the sense of speed that you normally don’t have a chance to experience. In the 200-meter singles event, a race can be decided by as little as a hundredth of a second, so there’s truly a split-second difference between winning and losing. Even if you’re just watching, you can’t take your eyes off of it for even a second, and the moment that the competitors reach the goal is a thrilling sight. In the pairs event, the key to winning is the two people matching their paddle movements. Their speed is determined by how well the two of them, who have different body weights, different paddle pitches, and different movement styles, can synchronize their movements. In order to make this happen, both members of the pair make millimeter-level adjustments all the way down to the way they sit and their positions. It’s also important that they show consideration for one another so that they can both row as best they can. The fact that the degree of communication and mutual consideration directly affects their performance is an interesting thing about pairs that is different from singles.”

Conversely, what do you find difficult about competing?
“If you have a lot of body weight, it gives your boat more stability, and strong muscles give you more paddling power, so my small frame puts me at kind of a disadvantage. Also, even though races are held outdoors on calm water with no current, Canadian canoeing, where you paddle on only one side at a time, is subject to great advantage or disadvantage depending on the direction the wind is blowing at the time. Competitors need to hone their paddling and boat handling skills so that they can perform their best in any situation. For example, how to put the paddle into the water, press firmly against the water, and pull it out of the water. Honing techniques like that enable them to achieve faster times. There’s a lot to enjoy about Canoe Sprint, especially the way that certain circumstances can make unexpected things happen, the skill that the competitors use to overcome them, and not knowing who the winner is until the very end.”

“I want people to see me doing my best on the world stage”

At the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, you competed in the Women’s Canoe 200m Singles Sprint and the Canoe Double 500m.
“Being able to compete in the Olympics was a huge honor in and of itself, as it had been my goal since I started competing in high school. I did the best I could, but unfortunately I wasn’t able to make it to the finals. I took the time after the Olympics as a bit of a break, so I stepped back from the front lines and spent more time in Gifu, where my team is based, teaching elementary, junior high, and high school students, and also providing support for para-athletes.”

One year later, you were back on the national team. What kind of change of heart did you have?
“My interest was reignited by seeing my old colleagues competing together in the world championships and other events, on live-streaming and elsewhere. I had told myself that I gave it my all at the Olympics, but that actually wasn’t the case. The truth is, I was disappointed because I knew I could’ve done better. I came to understand that as I saw them competing. Also, the way that my teammates on the Japanese national team invited me to rejoin them was a big factor in me making the decision to go back.”

Recommended canoeing tour in the heart of Tokyo

From your perspective as a native Tokyoite, what is it that you like about Tokyo?
“When people think of Tokyo, they usually picture a big city, but Kiyose City, where my family lives, is a rural place with a very laid-back atmosphere. It’s a very nature-rich place where you can grow lots of vegetables, see sunflower fields in the summer, and there are even fireflies, too. One thing that I find appealing about Tokyo is that you can get to rural areas like that just by taking a train for about 30 or 40 minutes from downtown.”

The Olympics have drawn a lot of attention to canoeing. Where in Tokyo can people go if they want to try canoeing for themselves?
“On the Kyunaka River, which flows through Edogawa City, you can enjoy sightseeing from the water while paddling a canoe. You can also take lessons on how to paddle a canoe, so even first-timers can feel at ease. There are a lot of different sights you can see, such as cherry trees lining the river and the view of TOKYO SKYTREE from the water, which has led to its increasing popularity. It’s a great way to experience the appeal of canoeing while also enjoying sightseeing.”

Born in Tokyo in 1996. Member of GIFU MIZUHO SPORTS GARDEN. She began competing in earnest as a high school student by participating in a Tokyo Metropolitan Government project to discover and develop top athletes. Placed 4th in the Women’s Canoe Double 500m at the 18th Asian Games (Jakarta/Palembang 2018). Placed 9th in the Women’s Canoe Double 500m at the 2019 ICF Canoe Sprint World Championships. Won the Women’s Canoe Double 500m at the 2020 Subaru Japan Canoe Sprint Championships. Competed in the Women’s Canoe Single 200m and Canoe Double 500m at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.