NAGANO, Japan (AP) — When he’s not chanting and living the austere life of a Buddhist priest, Kazuki Yazawa contemplates Olympic gold.
The 27-year-old Yazawa will represent Japan in canoe slalom at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics where he hopes to use his mental toughness and skill to bring home a medal.
Yazawa wakes up before dawn every day — not to train — but to pray as a novice priest.
With a shaved head and donning a long black robe, he tags along behind senior priests at the ancient Zenkoji Daikanjin Temple in Nagano prefecture, still learning his chants and getting used to long hours of sitting on the floor.
But once the clock strikes 3 p.m. and his duties are done, he changes into a polo shirt and shorts and drives his white van to the nearby Saigawa River to practice for the big stage of Rio.
Though a lifelong canoeist, Yazawa’s second calling as priest came shortly after competing in the London Olympics in 2012.
He placed ninth in the men’s K-1 kayak slalom — a record for a Japanese canoeist — but was strained under the pressures of finding sponsors.
That’s was when he felt the need to find a stable job, and was inspired by his mentor and a fellow priest who also serves as the Nagano canoe association chairman, Kenei Koyama.
In 2013, Yazawa decided to retreat from the front-lines of foreign competition and entered into priesthood.
“I never had the intention of balancing the two” Yazawa said. “When I started as a Buddhist priest, I had decided that my main job would be as a priest and that my life as a canoeist would be done in my spare time.”
An unexpected turn of events happened when Yazawa won the Japanese canoe slalom national tournament in 2015, propelling him to the top among Japanese contenders to compete in the Summer Games in Rio.
Now, Yazawa practices for about an hour and half, six days a week, followed by either a runs or a gym session.
His practice time on an average day is less than half of what he had done for the London Olympics, but that has not deterred Yazawa from reaching for gold.
“I hope to give my best performance that I can on the grand stage of the Olympics, and come back to Japan with a good feeling” Yazawa said.
His elders, meanwhile, are giving him all the support they can while not putting too much pressure on him.
“If you can win, nothing would surpass that,” Kansho Kayaki, Deputy Chief Priest at the temple, told Yazawa. “Regardless of the results, we hope you will stay healthy, avoid injuries, and complete the games.”
Yazawa will be competing at his third Olympics in Rio, following Beijing and London. Win or lose, he is taking a philosophical approach.
“This time, I think I’m more at ease,” Yazawa said. “I think I’ll be able to enjoy the Games.”