Feature

Japan's Nishida Yuji on high trajectory to Tokyo 2020

Rising spiker defying gravity and opponents as 20-year-old lefty sets sights on summer of 2021.

By Shintaro Kano ·

The new face of Japanese men’s volleyball turned a lot of heads and raised a lot of eyebrows at the 2019 FIVB World Cup last fall.

Twenty-year-old lefty Nishida Yuji scored 174 points, third most overall at the tournament. He aced 29 serves – the only player there with more than 20 aces – and was named both the top server and opposite spiker of the World Cup in leading hosts Japan to fourth place, the country’s best finish in 28 years.

And Nishida, he says, is just getting started – coronavirus or not.

“It may seem like there’s plenty of time to the Olympics but it’s actually not as much as you think there is”, Nishida said during a press conference ahead of a national team training camp in July.

“It’s on you to see how much you can improve. If you want positive results, then you have to find a way to push yourself – even during a situation like the one we’re in now.

“I’m going to keep challenging myself to see how much I can get better – hopefully to a point where I can win an Olympic medal”.

Going leaps and bounds

Unlike his international team-mate Ishikawa Yuki who was on a fast track to stardom, Nishida opted for the scenic route through his schoolboy days, never making an appearance at the high school national championships.

Nishida – who got into volleyball following his older brother and sister to games as a toddler – was recruited by the top junior high and high schools in the country, but chose to attend programmes in his native Mie Prefecture.

Not making it to the nationals, however, opened up a path to professional volleyball while still being a student for Nishida, who was determined to play in the V.League top flight and couldn’t get there fast enough.

Nishida is hardly a giant by the sport’s standards listed at 1.86 meters, but is said to have a vertical of more than a meter that allows him to swat the ball with authority unmatched by his Japanese peers.

In January 2018, he was given a shot by the JTEKT Stings, becoming the first high school player to debut in the V.League. The following May, Nishida received his first call-up to the national side and hasn’t looked back since.

Tokyo on my mind

The Olympic Games has always been on Nishida’s radar ever since he watched Beijing 2008 as an 8-year-old, and was on course to realise his dream this summer before Tokyo 2020 was postponed.

“I was shocked when the Olympics was postponed but I believe the Olympics will be held so my motivation has not changed”, he said. “If anything, I’m fired up more than ever.

“At first I didn’t deal with the postponement very well, but it is what it is. When I tried to turn the situation into a positive, I started seeing it as another year to get better and stronger.

“I’m really looking forward to finding out how much I can improve over the next year”.

Nishida Yuji will take his aerial act to the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games.

At his current rate of improvement, Nishida may not be around in Japan for that much longer. Among his fans overseas are Ivan Zaytsev, the opposite for Italy who reached out to Nishida via Instagram, congratulating him on winning the V.League title this past season.

But first things first: Nishida will do everything he can to help Japan capture their first Olympic medal since Munich 1972, when they won gold.

“I know a lot is said on whether the Games will happen or not but there’s realyl nothing we can do about that. As far as I’m concerned, what we can do is make the most of each and every day.

“If you squeeze everything out of today for what it’s worth then it will lead to a better future. There’s no point in looking too far down the road. I think it’s important to face obstacles and overcome them.

“When the Olympics rolls around next year, you want to be able to look back and say, ‘I’m glad I did that back then’”.