TOKYO — Past the baseball fields at Ojima Komatsugawa Park, which on Friday were full of uniformed boys, is a quiet edge where one of Japan’s leading Olympians got his start.
It is a place that sits quietly and unnoticed most days. Take a closer look, though. The stone steps leading toward the Kyunaka River are worn smooth by the grinding power of a thousand skateboards. The smooth, curved-steel hand rails beg to be ridden. A withered wooden quarter pipe is wedged under the bridge, next to a sleeping man. A sign warning that skateboarding is not allowed has been uprooted and tossed in the bushes.
Yuto Horigome grew up nearby, on the third floor of a 12-story apartment with his parents and two younger brothers. His father, Ryota Horigome, a Tokyo taxi driver, used to skateboard, too. When he married, he promised he would stop, because skateboarding in Japan was long seen as an activity for aimless renegades; it was time to get more serious with life.
But he took young Yuto to the park and handed him a skateboard. And on Sunday, Yuto Horigome, an unassuming 22-year-old from the east side of Tokyo, might become Japan’s first gold medalist — if he can beat the far more famous and rich Nyjah Huston of the United States in street skateboarding.
It is an event of imagination on rails, stairs and ramps. And the riverside edge of the park is where Horigome’s imagination flourished. On Friday, the same day that his father came to visit where it began, Yuto posted photographs to Instagram showing the two of them together at this very spot many years ago.
“It is much more than I could imagine,” Ryota Horigome said. “I didn’t expect he would like skateboarding so much.”
Ryota, 46, was a truck driver when Yuto was born. He shifted to taxis to take advantage of the schedule at the time — 20-hour shifts, 12 days a month. “It was good to spend time with the children,” he said.
These days he drives daytime shifts, 7 a.m. to 5 p.m., 28 days a month, he said. Friday was his first day off after nine consecutive days shuttling fares. And he is scheduled to work on Sunday, during the competition. On Friday, he was still pondering whether to take the day off.
The issue is his nerves. He cannot watch. Not many major skate contests are held in Japan, so Yuto usually competes while his father is sleeping. Ryota wakes to learn the result, often another victory for his son.
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“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime chance,” he said, 48 hours before the scheduled final of the Olympic contest. “But I have a heavy weight in my stomach.”
Yuto’s two younger brothers — one in college, the other in vocational school — do not ride much. They sometimes work at a nearby convenience store, and neighbors are growing more excited at Yuto’s Olympic prospects, about eight miles from home on Sunday.
The family has not seen Yuto since before the pandemic. He spends most of his time in Southern California, the center of the skateboarding world, a place friendlier to street skaters than Japan. When he returned to Tokyo for the Olympics, he was in relative isolation and training with Japan’s team, which could win several skateboarding medals in the days ahead.
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Ryota said they mostly communicate through text. His text to his son this week: Do your best.
“If he does his best, I am sure he can get a medal,” Ryota said. “If everything goes well, maybe a gold.”
Horigome and Huston are expected to finish first and second, in either order. While Huston, 26, has dominated contests over the past decade, Horigome is his steeliest competitor. He beat Huston at the world championship in Rome last month.
“But Nyjah is a monster,” Ryota Horigome said.
A gold medal could change everything. Skateboarding’s arrival at the Olympics has elevated the sport to a more acceptable pastime, and Yuto Horigome is already well known. His face has graced giant Tokyo 2020 advertisements at Shibuya Crossing, a famed Tokyo intersection, and at Narita International Airport.
But gold? Ryota is not sure he can watch. He does know that it might change Ojima Komatsugawa Park. When Yuto has shown himself skating at his original spot, other skateboarders have come. Security has increased. The sign was put up (and tossed in the bushes).
And Ryota has been asked to take down the quarter pipe under the bridge. He was one of the ones who built it, 20 years ago.
Kim Sang-woo contributed reporting.