London 2012 Olympics: Spotlight on... Ai Fukuhara


In the first of our series of articles focusing on the run-up to the London 2012 Olympics we interview table tennis star Ai Fukuhara (who works for (All Nippon Airways)). After turning professional at only 10 years old, she went on to become the youngest player to be selected for the Japanese national team, at the age of 11. Having already competed in the last two Olympic Games, she is hoping for a spot on the medal podium at London 2012. This is the first time for a female Japanese table tennis player to participate in three consecutive Olympics.

Affectionately known to the nation as 'Ai-chan', she is definitely one to watch! We managed to meet up with her during her visit to London at the end of last year, where she was competing in a pre-Olympic test match at the Excel Centre.

When did you start playing table tennis? How old were you when you played in your first major competition?
I started playing table tennis when I was three years and nine months old. I was four years old when I first competed in an all-Japan competition in the under-eights section (called the 'Bambi' section). She won her first competition just a few months before her sixth birthday, competing in an all-Japan under-sevens competition.

How did you cope with the pressure of playing at the top level at such a young age?

When I was small, I was not aware - I would say that my blood hadn't arrived at the heart! - so I didn't feel any pressure. When I competed in the All-Japan competition at four years old I finished in the top 16. I remember the first time I got nervous in a competition was the following year, when I finished first in my section. My hand was shaking when I reached the final! I don't recall feeling any pressure but I do remember that I felt nervous. The older I got the more pressure I felt, but at a young age it didn't affect me.

Ai Fukuhara is one of Japan's medal hopefulls for the London 2012 Olympic Games

Did you play any other sports or do any other club activities at school?
I started swimming when I was eight months old and used to have a lesson at least once a week for about 10 years. It wasn't as part of an after-school club, but I was always practising swimming along with table tennis until I was 10 years old. Unfortunately, because I was rather short, it was always hard for me to reach the end of the swimming lane ahead of my competitors, so I chose to play table tennis. Recently I tried golf. I thought that I might be able to do well because the ball is the same size as a table tennis ball, and whereas table tennis is quite fast and you are always moving, the golf ball is still when you hit it. However, my club didn't hit the ball at all! I also tried badminton, thinking ball sports must suit me, but the ball was quite far from the racket. I quite like tennis, as it is similar to table tennis.

Have you visited the UK before? If so, what are your impressions of it?
I came to Sheffield two years ago for the England open on a professional tour. That was my first time to visit England. Before I came here, my impressions of England were based on a popular character that I like. I have the same birthday as Hello Kitty, who is from the suburbs of London, so my early impression of England was as the home of Hello Kitty. When I came two years ago, it had been decided that London would host the 2012 Olympic Games, so I was really looking forward to it. On this trip, so far I've only been from the airport to the hotel and competition venue, but on the way from the airport we drove past Big Ben, which I was excited to see for the first time, along with other famous London sights such as the double-decker buses!

How have you been preparing for the London 2012 Olympic Games?
The venue I competed at during this visit is the same as the Olympic table tennis venue, and although unfortunately I didnt win this competition (the ITTF Pro Tour Grand Final - she took second place in the doubles), I've gained a valuable insight into what the Olympics will be like by playing here, so that's a great plus for me. There are only about six months left now and I will be competing in 14 competitions at most in preparation, where I hope to progress in every match.

London 2012 will be her third consecutive Olympic Games

What are your personal expectations for the Games?
At the Beijing Olympics, unfortunately I was knocked out of the tournament in the semi-final and finished in fourth place, so my goal is to win a medal this time!

This year has been a very tough one for Japan with the Great East Japan Earthquake that occurred in March and we know that you have given a lot of support to the victims of the earthquake. (Ms Fukuhara has taken part in various support activities such as fundraising initiatives and visits to affected areas.) Can you tell us more about how you have been involved?
It was a big disaster which brought tremendous damage to Tohoku and the surrounding regions. My birthplace is Sendai in Miyagi prefecture, and I went to elementary school in Sendai, so I have a lot of family and friends in that region. I believe it is good enough that one does what one can do. I wanted to do whatever I could to help people affected by the disaster in this area of Japan.

The Japanese Olympic Committee expressed that their Olympic campaign this year is particularly important as it is a way to show the world that Japan is recovering well and lend strength to the victims of the disaster. Do you feel added incentive to do well for Japan?
For various reasons the whole world is watching Japan at the moment, and the country is being helped by people from across the globe. I believe that we athletes can encourage the Japanese people and also appeal to the international community by making strenuous efforts and achieving good results. I wish for our whole team to join together and do our best for Japan!

Apart from table tennis, are there any other events which you will be following closely in the 2012 Olympics?

I have a lot of friends representing other sports, so we cheer each other on. First Id like to do my best in my own events. Successful results for the Japanese squad will be posted in the Olympic Village, like who won a medal, so I want to do my best so that my achievement will be shown there and I can report my good result to everyone. I hope that our athletes success will be encouraging news for Japan.