Tokyo 2020: Meet the Athletes

Ishikawa Yūki: Aiming for the Top of the Volleyball World

Tokyo 2020 Sports

The Tokyo Olympics have now been postponed until 2021, due to the global spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet Japanese men’s star volleyballer Ishikawa Yūki, who plays for Italian SuperLega team Pallavolo Padova, remains positive. We trace the career of this 24-year-old star, currently playing professionally at the pinnacle of competitive volleyball, who aspires to become the world’s top player.

Unity of Players and Spectators

It is Sunday, February 9. The air is filled with excitement at Kioene Arena, a volleyball facility in the suburbs of the northern Italian city of Padua. The cheering from the 3,500-strong crowd is like a passing locomotive. The local team, Pallavolo Padova, takes the court against a formidable rival, Trentino.

After winning the first set, Padova loses the second and third. But the efforts of the team’s outside spiker, Ishikawa Yūki, helps the hometown side to snatch the fourth, paving the way for a gripping final set. Although Padova is eventually defeated by a stronger opponent, the crowd appears satisfied with the fierce, suspense-filled contest.

After the game ends, fans pour onto the court, pursuing star players for their autographs. Ishikawa is surrounded by teenagers and parents with children. Seeing him happily pose with fans for photos, it is evident that he has won the affection of the Padua locals.

Ishikawa poses for photos with Japanese and local fans after the match. (© Amano Hisaki)
Ishikawa poses for photos with Japanese and local fans after the match. (© Amano Hisaki)

An Opportunity to Play in the SuperLega

Ishikawa is now in his fifth season playing in Italy’s premier league, the SuperLega, but before coming to Italy, he never imagined playing professionally outside of Japan. When he was a student at Aichi Prefecture’s Seijō High School, his team won the nation’s top three high-school tournaments two years running. Ishikawa, pegged as a future Japanese champion, entered Chūō University, renowned for its volleyball team. “My aim at the time was to join the national squad, and to play in the V-League—the Japan Volleyball League—after graduating.”

He says that it was “totally unexpected” that he had the opportunity to play in Italy’s SuperLega, considered the world’s top volleyball league. During his first year at university, his life took a different course when he joined a three-month volleyball exchange in the northern Italian town of Modena, where Ferrari has its headquarters.

At the time, the local team was actively seeking a Japanese player, but there were no V-League or other top-level players available. Modena therefore cast its net wider, and Matsunaga Rio, then coach at Chūō University, heard that the team was considering contracting an up-and-coming university student.

Although Ishikawa was new to the university, he was already a key player on the team. In spite of this, the coach considered his future, and suggested that he go to Italy.

“I knew no Italian and nothing about SuperLega, but I was interested in the unknown, so I decided to give it a try.”

Ishikawa was fortunate in that Modena is a leading team in the SuperLega and enjoys passionate support among the local population. With the team’s strong line-up of international players, Ishikawa only had the opportunity to play one full league match. Nevertheless, he made a valuable contribution to the team as a pinch server and pinch receiver, and fans even wrote a song to spur him on.

At his farewell party, prior to returning to Japan, Andrea Sala, the oldest team member, who taught Ishikawa Italian while the team was on tour, hugged him and told him to “Get stronger and come back to Italy.” Of course, this was already his intention.

“I often played against foreign teams as a member of the all-Japan high-school team. We rarely had a win, so I formed the impression that overseas players were stronger. But after actually training with them, I’ve realized that they also have their weak points. So although I recognized my own weakness, I realized that with further development, I could make the grade.”

In his third and fourth years at university, during the off-season, Ishikawa traveled to Lazio, Italy, to play with mid-ranked team Latina. Then, last season, after graduation, he officially transferred to Siena as a professional player. There he had an extraordinary season, becoming the only player on the team to start on court in all 26 games. He played a total of 111 sets and scored a record 376 points, earning him twelfth place in the league rankings. This season, after receiving offers from over half of the SuperLega teams, he chose Padova.

The Padua arena, packed with fans.
The Padua arena, packed with fans.

Bringing His SuperLega Experience Back to Japan

While many Japanese players aim to enter the V-League, hoping for a spot on the Japanese Olympic squad, Ishikawa believes it is more important that he play in the SuperLega to gain the experience he needs to become the world’s top player. “I chose Padova because it is ranked higher than Siena, and I could be one of the six in the starting lineup.” Last season, Padova finished seventh, earning a spot in the top-eight playoffs. Ishikawa aims to prove himself again in the postseason in the hope of joining one of SuperLega’s top teams, Modena or Perugia, next season.

Ishikawa is a key player in the team’s defense.
Ishikawa is a key player in the team’s defense.

Naturally, he will also play his best for Japan, in order that the national squad can secure an Olympic medal. At the FIVB Volleyball Men’s World Cup in October 2019, Japan won eight games, defeating Rio Olympic silver medalists Italy to secure fourth place. Ishikawa’s performance was top level, as expected. He displayed new skills gained in the Italian league, including back-row attacks and setting. In addition to his own outstanding play, he also actively encouraged his teammates, including Nishida Yūji, a rising 19-year-old star. Ishikawa says that this is also a habit he acquired playing in Italy, where players are more assertive. His contribution of skills and experience gained in the SuperLega will no doubt lead to a renaissance in men’s volleyball in Japan.

When in Rome . . .

At 192 centimeters, Yūki appears short among the SuperLega players, many of whom are over 200 centimeters tall. In his arsenal, Yūki boasts a maximum spike height of 3.51 meters and ball speed of 120 kilometers per hour, but as he admits, “It takes more than momentary bursts of power—competition is a matter of endurance. That’s why I need to increase my strength to avoid injury.” Initially when he moved to Italy, he always ate out, but he has switched to preparing his own meals, on the advice of a nutritionist. He has adjusted his diet, and now even cooks soups with tomato, which he used to hate.

Ishikawa’s Italy’s SuperLega performance has boosted his worth.
Ishikawa’s Italy’s SuperLega performance has boosted his worth.

Training in Italy emphasizes quality over quantity, with the focus on practical style. Much less time is spent on the basics compared with Japan. “But I feel that both quality and quantity are essential for me to improve,” says Ishikawa. “My teammate used to pick me up for training and drop me at home afterward, but now that I have a car, I go early to train by myself.” Ishikawa believes that his persistent, down-to-earth style of training has enabled him to gain 10 kilograms in two years, and thereby increase his resilience to injury.

He also needs to improve his Italian, for which he relies on a paper rather than electronic dictionary. “I used a paper dictionary to study English at school. For some reason, words stick better for me that way.” Because the pronunciation is close to Japanese, he finds it easier to catch words. When he encounters new words during his training or in daily life, first, he takes notes on his mobile phone. After he gets home, he looks up the new words in his dictionary, underlines them, writes them in a notebook, and memorizes them the same day.

“In Italy, people communicate by clearly stating their opinions and intentions. At first, I was very frustrated at not being able to express myself. After three years, though, I could get by day-to-day without any difficulties, and now I can express my feelings while playing too.”

He makes an effort to watch the news on television at mealtimes. “Until last year, I only watched the sporting news, but now I’m trying harder to understand Italian society and politics.” For Ishikawa, Italian is no longer just a tool for his volleyball. He would like to improve his language skills further to better integrate into his local community.

Making an Effort to Show Appreciation

Just when the league competition had reached the climax of the play-offs, Italy was gripped by the COVID-19 crisis, leading to the cancellation of events nationwide. SuperLega matches were all postponed.

Although his team activities have been called off, this has not dampened Ishikawa’s spirits. He is trying to remain positive, and has launched a new project using his official Instagram account (@yuki_ishikawa_official) to encourage Japanese schoolchildren of all ages to post messages of appreciation.

“In high school, our volleyball coach taught us, ‘Never forget to be thankful,’ which has been my policy to this day. In volleyball, it’s important to get the ball to the next player. Similarly, I hope to give students who missed their graduation or entrance ceremonies a way to pass their appreciation to their friends or others who have helped them. I’ll be happy if I can make any difference for a brighter future.”

Ishikawa’s official website has the details (in Japanese) on how to take part in this project.

(Orignally published in Japanese. Banner photo: Ishikawa Yūki jumps to make a bold attack. All photos courtesy Good On You except where otherwise indicated.)

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