Kazuki Yazawa - The slalom kayaker who divides his time between paddling and prayer
Japanese slalom kayaker Kazuki Yazawa’s daily routine involves leaving work at 3 p.m., driving his van to the Saigawa River and swapping his black robes for a wetsuit.
When not training or competing on the rapids, Yazawa is a Buddhist priest.
The 29-year-old was inspired to take up paddling after watching his father kayaking on the local river, and he set himself the goal of reaching the Olympic Games. It was a goal shared, and achieved, by his sister Aki, who has also gone on to compete at the Games in canoe slalom.
Yazawa says that the serenity of the sport appeals to him: "When I'm on the water in my kayak, I feel secure, I feel I can be truly myself," he muses. He also enjoys being challenged by the great outdoors: "The fun part is paddling in strong currents, it feels like riding nature's rollercoaster."
Competing at international level since 2006, Yazawa has already participated in three editions of the Olympic Games. At Beijing 2008 he was eliminated in the qualifying round of the K1 event, finishing in 18th place. Then at London 2012, he qualified for the final and finished ninth – a best ever placing for a Japanese kayaker. Most recently in Rio in 2016 he finished 11th.
A new life
Unable to support himself as a full-time kayaker, despite his impressive showings on the Olympic stage and elsewhere, Yazawa decided to contemplate a new career. In the end, a radical change of direction was inspired by the former Nagano Kayak Association chairman Kenei Koyama.
"I thought, 'I want to be like him, someone who can help people.' He was a monk at the Zenkonji monastery, so I thought 'I want to be a monk there too,'" explains Yazawa.
So at the age of 27, he took his vows and began his new life as Kyoei Yazawa. Nowadays he wakes up before dawn to complete his tasks throughout the day, which include reciting prayers and writing blessings for visitors. He compares creating the calligraphy used to write the blessings with kayaking: "If you do it over and over it gradually becomes a part of you," he says. "It's all down to the effort you put in."
Yazawa never actually planned to continue competitive kayaking once he started his full-time job.
"I never had the intention of balancing the two," he said. "When I started as a Buddhist priest, I'd decided that my main job would be as a priest and that my life as a kayaker would be done in my spare time."
However, when Yazawa won the Japanese canoe slalom championships in 2015, he was selected to compete at Rio 2016, meaning his sporting career remained very much at the fore, requiring him to train six days a week, fitting his regime around his monastic duties.
The kayaker has his eyes firmly set on gold when Japan hosts the Olympic Games in 2020. That goal has meant some tough decisions. With no slalom facility in Nagano and still having to fund his expensive sport without a sponsor, Yazawa has, for now at least, taken the difficult decision to leave the monastery and take up a council job in Aomori, where there are slalom kayak facilities available nearby.
"This will allow me to focus on my sport and give me peace of mind," he explains.