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This is Naomi: Japan gave me pride that will stay with me for life

Tennis star vows to come back to represent her country at the Paris Olympics

"Being selected to be the final torchbearer for the 2020 Olympics has been by far the top personal achievement of my life thus far. Perhaps it will be the greatest honor in all my life." --Naomi Osaka.    © Reuters

"Steady ... steady," I thought to myself as the Olympic flame was passed on to my torch. So much had happened to bring this tiny flame into my shaking hands. Not only had countless people handed it from one to another so that it could arrive at me now, the entire world had to overcome seemingly impossible challenges to make these games happen.

As I carefully ascended the stairs to light the Olympic caldron, I could feel the entire world's eyes on me as I lit the flame that would lighten everyone's hearts. Though these games had to be held without spectators, I knew everyone was watching.

It had been my parents' dream since I was a little girl to represent Japan in the Olympics, and as I played tennis more and more, it became my dream as well. Every time my matches were televised in Japan, my grandparents would watch them without fail.

So, Olympic torch in hand, I wondered how my grandfather in Nemuro -- the one who would worry about his heart getting worse every time a set was lost -- might be feeling at this very moment. I think my grandparents were probably crying.

Honestly, it took a while for me to process everything that happened. Looking back, being selected to be the final torchbearer for the 2020 Olympics has been by far the top personal achievement of my life thus far. Perhaps it will be the greatest honor in all my life. Simply put, I have no words to describe what I felt after the opening ceremony. Even now I am still filled with gratefulness and thankfulness.

Being selected as a torchbearer alone would have been a surprise, but to be selected as a final runner!! As a biracial athlete, to be chosen to represent Japan in this way made me feel Japan has a new wave of direction. This event also gave me a stronger sense of pride and patriotism as a Japanese and made me think about what it means to be Japanese.

Naomi Osaka takes on Marketa Vondrousova of the Czech Republic in a third-round match on July 27. (Photo by Takaki Kashiwabara)

Of course, I do wish my actual performance in the Olympics had been better than it was, but hey, that's sports. This year was particularly challenging. All of us athletes were preparing and training for 2020 then had to put everything on hold for a whole year without any certainty about whether the games would even happen. With the COVID-19 pandemic and having practice and competitions being restricted, I had times where my heart was about to fall apart. However, I think I was really lucky that there were always people around me who supported me.

The pandemic caused a lot of headaches for our training and preparation, and I am not alone in thinking this way. Other athletes, including American gymnast Simone Biles, have noted that they feel the same.

In addition to the difficult challenges that other athletes also faced in the lead-up to the 2020 Olympics, the past few months have been rather trying for me. That entire story has already been widely covered in the media, so I won't go into details here. Instead, I'll take the opportunity to answer the common question of what I did after the French Open to prepare for the games.

The short answer is that I spent time with friends and family and was on the court training with my team. The Olympics have been a dream of mine since I was a kid, so I feel like the break that I took was very needed. I definitely feel a little bit refreshed and am happy again.

While I am obviously disappointed in my Olympic results, I don't have any regrets and look back on the overall experience as something that was hugely positive. I am honored to have been able to play for Japan at the world's preeminent sporting event.

Looking back now, I can say with certainty that the best part of the 2020 Olympics for me was being so widely embraced and accepted by Japan. I know that there are some out there who criticize me for not speaking enough Japanese, not growing up in my home country and currently living in America. The fact that I, seemingly a foreigner, participated in the opening ceremony as a representative of Japan and served as a runner shows that the definition of "Japanese" is expanding. I am convinced that being able to participate in the opening ceremony as an icon of diversity in a country that is open to accepting and embracing diversity will have a great meaning for me for the rest of my life.

Whenever I moved through the various zones of the Olympics, I was always greeted by warm smiles and encouraging waves from my fellow countrymen. These individuals ranged from young college students to seniors, and all of them welcomed me with open arms. Never have I felt so accepted by my home country, and I feel even more proud now to have played for Japan.

Though I would have liked to have taken home a gold for Japan, that wasn't in the cards this year. Luckily, this is only my very first Olympics, and I'll be back next time to again represent my home country. Before signing off though, I would like to give my thanks and appreciation to all those who were involved in making the games happen this year. Without your tireless efforts, none of this would have been possible. Likewise, I am ever-appreciative of all of the medical professionals out there who are trying to get us back to a new normal.

This is the second in a series of articles by Naomi Osaka on her personal reflections.

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