TCSD Conversation by Craig Zelent
I recently got to talk triathlon with Tri Club member Kosuke Amano. Our conversation left me 100% impressed. Kosuke has come a long way in his life and has achieved many great things, but he remains grounded and humble. I know you will enjoy getting to know this great guy.
Craig: You were born in Japan and moved the US when you were 5. What are some of your early memories of arriving in the US?
Kosuke: The majority of my early memories in the US take place with me in the speedo…and things haven’t changed much since. My parents started taking me and my sister to swim lessons when I was three and she was four and we continued with that once we moved here. My early childhood memories basically involves me swimming, running around with friends before and after swim practice and the monthly trips to swim meets. These swim meets were usually a pretty long ordeal, having to be there for warm ups at around 7:00 am and staying there until the meet ended in the afternoon. In addition, since you are pretty much only swimming 4-5 events that take about a minute to do each time, it leaves a lot of time in between races. We spent those breaks just playing all sorts of games with teammates, catching frogs by the creek nearby, and playing cards and such. When it was time to swim, you got your goggles, stood behind the blocks, did a couple arm swings and you were all warmed up and ready to go. That part was awesome. You didn’t have to do any long warm ups or cool downs and since you were growing, pretty much every race was a PR. It was pretty sweet.
Craig: What was your athletic background before you got involved with triathlon?
Kosuke: My main background is in swimming. I did gymnastics for about 3-4 years when I was little, and I dabbled in water polo my first two years of high school. I enjoyed water polo, but when it came down to going up against some better schools there were some huge guys out there that could toss around a little Asian boy like a chewtoy. So, I figured I’d go back to swimming full time which I did by my junior year of high school. I ended up being fairly good at the sport. My highest achievement in the sport was when I won the Division IV Southern Section CIF 200 yard freestyle and got 2nd in the 500 freestyle my senior year of high school.
I had aspirations of swimming in college and had a couple of Division I colleges interested in me, but I ended up going to Arizona with the goal of walking onto their team. My sister was also swimming for Cal, so there was definitely a part of me that wanted to swim in a Pac-10 (now Pac-12) school with her. Unfortunately, I never made it onto the team. I swam on the club team there for a couple of years trying to get faster. It was a pretty neat set up because the club team was affiliated with the University’s team. I even got to train with the college team during the summer after my freshman year. That was an amazing experience, to be in the same lane or next to Olympians and future Olympians every day at practice.
Unfortunately, while my swim was improving, my school work was not going so well. I was partying, farting around too much, and my GPA had dropped down way below a 2.0. And needless to say, that didn’t really help with my chances of getting on the team. I swam competitively for one more year, but it became clear that year that I was burnt out and the love for the sport was gone. I was only was holding on to swimming because that was the only thing I ever knew and it was something I felt I had to keep doing.
Even though I was clearly burnt out, I still failed to realize my goal of swimming in college and it was really disappointing. But looking back now, I feel it was something I needed to go through and it is because of this experience and disappointment that I learned the importance of balance in life.
Oh, and I have to mention, my sister ended up having a very successful college career, becoming an All-American one year and being a vital member of a team that included some big names like Natalie Coughlin.
Craig: For the past couple of years you have been one of the TCSD swim coaches at the JCC. Trying to keep our beginner triathletes in mind, what are a few tips you have found to be most helpful?
Kosuke: It’s important to make sure that any movements you do are not causing more damage than good. One bad technique can even hurt you in multiple ways. For example, when you add the kick to your swim, I see a lot of people bend their knees too much (like the running motion) or spread their legs too far apart. Every time you do this, you’re wasting energy moving your legs AND it is actually causing drag which will also lead your hips to sink and slow you down.
Drills and analysis of your stroke is something you will do no matter how fast you are. Even Olympians do drills. They have coaches look at their stroke often and get critiqued on what they are doing right, wrong and what they have to fix. Luckily, nowadays, it is very easy for anyone to get feedback. You can even use something like a phone or ipad to take videos of your swimming and have someone qualified look at your form. When you do have to change something in your stroke, don’t expect instant results all the time. Sometimes you need to take a step backwards in order to take two steps forward.
It’s also important to concentrate on good technique when you are tired. That’s when you are working the muscles essential to proper form. If you change your stroke when you feel tired and start doing something because it feels easier, you’ll never build the muscles you’ll need to hold proper swim form.
And finally, when you are just starting off, just get in the water. You don’t even have to do drills or anything specific. Just do flips, do handstands, go down and touch the bottom of the pool, lounge on your back and float around with a mai tai (sorry, but with no floaties of any kind when you do this). It is very important to just get used to knowing what your body feels like when you are in the water and to get comfortable in it.
Craig: My first association of you was your dominance at the TCSD Aquathlons a couple of years ago. What are some of the keys to racing successfully when there is a surf entry/exit?
Kosuke: I think the key is to work on dolphin dives, high leg running and practicing those so you know at what depth and places you should switch off between those two and normal swimming. There’s also the balance between speed and effort. You may be faster running through shallow waters, but it may take a lot more out of you. There are times when you need to emphasize speed in order to get into a good pack you can draft off of, but it may also cause you to redline and it can take some time to recover from that. There’s no right or wrong way, it all depends on the situation. The majority of the time, since it is so easy to get caught up in the moment and redline when going through surf entries, I hold a little back so when I start swimming normally, I’m still going strong.
When exiting, look back behind you for waves you can ride in and also for safety reasons. You don’t want to get knocked underwater from a break you didn’t see coming. Slow down if you need to and position yourself to catch a wave in. You can get those couple second back and also save some energy body surfing a wave in.
Another thing is attitude. You just basically have to look at the waves and entry ahead of you and think, “Bring it on, you stupid wave, I’m coming for you!” This attitude and confidence comes with practice, but I think just having that mentality helps especially during a mass start into surf entry.
Craig: What was your first Half Ironman like and how were you naive?
Kosuke: My first Half Ironman was the Hawaii 70.3 in June 2011. I had just raced to a top 5 finish at the Wildflower Olympic distance race in May and I was too arrogant going into the race. I thought I had everything all figured out. I ended up cramping big time from the heat and humidity of Hawaii. I had to stop for a bit on the bike and limped the run for a 2:41 half marathon time, which was around an hour and a half slower than my stand alone half marathon time. The thing is, without this experience, I don’t think I would have gotten my elite card later that year. After the Hawaii race, I went back to the drawing board and started studying and experimenting with nutrition from scratch. I learned that what may work for other people may not work for me. It’s taken many, many failed experiments and a lot of close call potty breaks, but I’m finally starting to figure out what type of nutrition plans works for my body, stomach, cramping and energy level.
Craig: You attempted a very aggressive goal this summer, but came up short. What did you learn from that experience?
Kosuke: I attempted to swim the length of Lake Tahoe. A direct length from the south to north shore would have been 21.25 miles. I followed the English Channel swim rules. I wore one rubber cap, a jammer and just covered myself in Vaseline. And once you hang onto anything for support, you’re done. I ended up getting through a little over a mile, maybe 35-40 minutes before I succumbed to the cold and had to quit. The discomfort I felt during the last 10 minutes is something I don’t ever want to experience again.
Going into the race, I knew Mother Nature had to be on my side for me to complete the swim. The only thing I had control over was the type of training I did and the type of shape I could get myself into for the swim. I felt fairly confident going into the swim that I could swim the distance. A week away from the swim, the lake temperatures were hovering right below 70 degrees, so I felt I had a good shot. Unfortunately, the wind picked up a couple of days before my swim and mixed up the cold waters from deeper in the lake. I think the buoys on the lake said the water was 63. It felt colder, but maybe it was all in my head.
I learned that I have the greatest friends and I am nothing without them. My friends Brannen Henn, Brian Wrona and Matt Elmore had come up to support me on this swim and I couldn’t ask for a better support team. They were there for me before, during and after the attempt and you just can’t be down for long when you have friends like them. They even helped me put Vaseline on my back before the race, which I assume didn’t go down as one of the best moments of Brian and Matt’s trip.
I am planning on attempting this swim again. It may be 5 or 10 years from now, though. I learned that training for this swim while planning to do a marathon a month later doesn’t work. I need to dedicate myself fully to this challenge, maybe eat some donuts, gain a little bit of weight and train specifically for it. For now though, I’d like to see how far I can go with my running and triathlon interests and I won’t be able to purse both at the same time.
Craig: You ran your first marathon this summer. How did that go for you?
Kosuke: I did, and everything kind of fell in place for me. I’ve always wanted to do a marathon and run in Boston one day. I always thought it would be later on in life, though, after I got done concentrating on triathlons. The events at this year’s Boston Marathon did hit me at a personal level. I had friends there. People I care deeply for. These events are what the human spirit is all about. It is people coming together to celebrate the joy of running, camaraderie and the passion they share for life and racing. And I really wanted to be a part of it next year.
As luck would have it, there was an inaugural marathon being held in my hometown of Ventura in September. I went into the race in pretty good shape but dealing with plantar fasciitis. I really didn’t know how it would react. I knew that if it didn’t act up, I had a chance of running somewhere in the 2:40 vicinity. But the PF was really affecting me before the race so I was worried how it would hold up. I also knew from my first Half Ironman experience, and coming fresh off the Lake Tahoe attempt, anything can happen on your first try at something. I was just thinking, “oh man, I can’t have 2 DNFs in a span of little over a month!” so I really just wanted to finish this one.
At the 12 mile mark, I found myself in 4th place with the leaders not that far off. It seemed that the insoles and ibuprofen was doing its job and my foot was feeling ok. I decided what the hell, start pushing it. How many people get the chance to race for a win in their hometown’s inaugural marathon? Go for it, see what happens and leave it all out there on the course. I ended up catching the leader around mile 15 and while I started struggling around mile 23, led until mile 25. Shortly after mile 25, my friend Fernando Blanco came by me like I was standing still. I tried to give chase, but he was just a stronger runner that day. I ended up second at 2:37.59, less than a minute from the winner, but it was really a pleasure finishing second to Fern. He deserved the win and I wouldn’t have broken 2:38 if it wasn’t for him. It was awesome running my first marathon through the streets I knew and I can look myself in the mirror and say I gave it everything I had. I couldn’t ask for a better race.
Craig: You have done a lot of different kinds of races. What are some of the racing accomplishments you are most proud of?
Kosuke: There are a few races that I am most proud of. The marathon is definitely up there. Another one of them was my first pro race I competed in. It was the Clermont Draft Legal Sprint Triathlon in March 2012, which was also an ITU Continental Cup race. From the pre-race meeting sitting around with people from different countries and being in the same room as people like Jarrod Shoemaker and Gwen Jorgensen, to the race itself, it was an amazing experience. The swim was definitely an eye opener. With my swimming background, I was used to always being one of the first people out of the water. Not this time. I think about 50 people started the race. Running out of the water I was thinking “hmmm, why the crap are there so many people ahead of me…” Then I looked back and I saw maybe 5 people behind me. It was a kick in the butt “welcome to racing with the big boys” moment for me. I ended up 40th out of 47. Not even close to competing for a podium but this is my proudest race in triathlon. I had the chance to race with some of the world’s best and at the same time, had front row seats as a fan watching the race unfold.
The most memorable race for me was a quarter-marathon race I did when I went back to visit my folks and relatives in Japan a year ago. My dad had picked up running recently and was going to run the race, so I decided to run it as well. The race was an out and back and after the turnaround, we saw each other and we got to give each other a high-five when we crossed paths. Race medals, podiums, my pro card, PR’s, winning, they are all very cool and all, but that high-five was the best moment I’ve had in all my experiences at races.
I remember asking my dad before the race when his last run race was. He said this was his first one and that there wasn’t that many opportunities for him to take part in things like this when he was growing up. My dad was born in 1952, only a short time after WWII ended, and I think his generation did not have the opportunity to take part in extra-curricular, recreational activities like run races. But for some reason I do. It really puts things in perspective that living this sort of lifestyle and having opportunities like racing and training is something I should never take for granted. Every time I get to step up on that start line and race is a gift.
Craig: What are your favorite benefits of TCSD membership?
Kosuke: The races that the club offers are great. It gives people the opportunity to race, have fun and experience what triathlons are all about without having to cough up several hundreds of dollars. When I first moved down here, I was a broke college grad that couldn’t afford to do many races. So, TCSD races were instrumental in giving me the experience and fueling my passion for triathlons. I also feel as though the Triathlon Club acts as a gateway for living a healthy lifestyle and also serves as a blanket organization for other organizations around San Diego. For instance, because of TCSD, I met and became friends with several people from the San Diego Track Club. This led to me joining their club and having the opportunity to race on the Track Club’s Open Men’s team for the past 4 years. I have met so many great people and had so many great experiences through it. I’ve also had the privilege of getting to know, train and race with people from the UCSD Tri Team. Tri Club was the thing that bounded all these other great organizations together for me.
Craig: Who has been particularly influential in your life?
Kosuke: My parents, my sister and my friends. I mentioned my dad picked up running recently. Well, my mom started taking swim lessons a few years back and is always emailing us about how fun of a challenge it is and how one day she’s going to do a 25 butterfly without stopping. She competed in her first Masters meet recently and it is very inspiring. Yep, the thing is, my parents never really learned how to swim. They only knew how to tread water and do some breaststroke to get by. That’s why they put my sister and me in swim lessons at such a young age. They wanted us to be able to swim and be comfortable with the water. They may have regretted that decision when they started having to take us to 5am morning workouts and drive us for hours on end going to swim meets.
But in the end, it’s how they live life that is influential. My dad is a tough as nails, hardworking, plow the dirt with your face type of person. If a job needs to get done, he will get it done. And he’ll get it done without complaining, without making excuses, without stepping on or using other people or things for his own benefit. He’s someone you can rely on. If you need anything, he just buckles down and gets stuff done. Plus afterwards, he’ll buy you a beer (or 3 or 5) so you can drink it with him. My mom is…well, let’s just say there are a bunch of people that will offer you an umbrella, then take it right back when it starts to rain. My mom is one of those people that will offer you her only umbrella when it is raining. She’s the most selfless and kind hearted person I know.
I can’t say enough about my family and friends. They inspire me with their athletic achievements, but more so with their character and how they act in life. They inspire me to become a better person and to aim for the stars but keep my feet on the ground.
Craig: Do you have any sponsors?
Kosuke: I don’t have any official sponsors, but I have been lucky with friends and companies that have taken care of me over the past few years. To name a few, Jake Mclaughlin and Justin Elmore at Aquasphere, Trevor Glavin at Skinfit and the people at Moment Cycle Sport have been great. And I know I would never have had so much fun and success in this sport without coaches and colleagues who’s taken me under their wing or given me so much advice over the years. Brian Grasky, the head coach at Tricats (the University of Arizona Triathlon Team) along with local coaches like Jim Vance, Ron “Sickie” Marcikic and Terry Martin from UCSD masters have always been there to give me guidance along the way. People like Phillip Krebs, Lars Finanger, Brendan Wolters, Kim McDonald, Bill Gleason have all helped me immensely when I was first getting into the sport and even more, they saw potential in me. That is something that means so much to me.
Craig: What do you do for a living?
Kosuke: I am a software engineer at Neustar. After my hiccup in my schoolwork the first 2 years, I was able to get it together and managed to graduate from Arizona with a degree in computer engineering with a minor in math, computer science and electrical engineering. I moved out to San Diego and luckily got hired by them and have been there for over 5 years now. I love the people I work with. Many of my co-workers are active in the running/fitness world and it’s been great going out to races with them. Plus, so many people including my boss have been very supportive of my triathlon/multisport ‘addiction’ outside of the workplace.
Craig: What are some of your future athletic goals?
Kosuke: It’s kind of up in the air and strangely, I feel super excited because it is that way. In the short term, I will run Boston in April and in the preparation for it, I’d like to take the winter months to see if I can get down to a sub 15min 5k on the track. I’m not sure after Boston. I do have one more year of eligibility racing as an elite so I may take advantage of that and take part in races and events that I may not be able to do without it.
My other main goal is to improve my beer mile time. I went 8:20 my first time, but the last 3 times I have done it has just been a total disaster. I really need to step up my game and “train” a lot more. My goal is to someday run a sub 7 min beer mile. If I can, and I’m sure people who have seen me do the beer mile will attest, it would probably go down as my biggest athletic achievement ever!
Craig: Kosuke, thank you so much for sharing your story. I know you will achieve everything you set your mind to. Your parents put you on the right course and you have the tools and talents to move mountains. Good luck!
Kosuke: It was my pleasure. Thank you so much for giving me the opportunity to share my experiences and thoughts.
Craig Zelent is a USA Triathlon Level 1 Certified Coach. Craig can be reached at 760-214-0055 or firstname.lastname@example.org.