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Mizutani clinches Japan's 1st Olympic medal in men's singles table tennis

Jun Mizutani is seen during the bronze medal match against Belarus's Vladimir Samsonov at the Riocentro Pavilion in Rio de Janeiro on Aug. 11, 2016. (Mainichi Photo/Masahiro Ogawa)

RIO DE JANEIRO -- Jun Mizutani won the bronze in the men's singles table tennis at the Rio Olympics by defeating Belarus's Vladimir Samsonov 4-1 on Aug. 11, bringing home Japan's first Olympic medal in the event.

"I would regret for the rest of my life if I fail to clinch the game with this shot," Mizutani thought to himself when he swung what became his last shot in the bronze medal match at the Riocentro Pavilion. When Samsonov's return shot netted, Mizutani tossed his racket and fell to the floor, raising his fists over and over again. "I was at last relieved from the pressure," he thought, rejoicing in his success at his third try at the Summer Games.

Samsonov, 40, is a seasoned player who once topped the world rankings. However, a level-headed Mizutani sensed that Samsonov wasn't his usual self that day as he "was returning easy balls slowly and was stiff from the first game." Mizutani focused on attacking Samsonov's backhand side, his weak spot, and managed to break down his defenses.

Mizutani uneventfully won the first two games but lost the third. In the fourth game, he was trailing 9-10 at one point but managed to come back. "That was the toughest moment," he recalled later. After three deuces, Mizutani conquered the game, and went on to easily clinch the fifth game, giving Japan its first Olympic medal in men's singles table tennis.

Mizutani was born in Iwata, Shizuoka Prefecture, to sport-loving parents. When he was 1 year old, his parents had him use his left hand at meals to change his dominant hand because left-handers were believed to hold an advantage in boxing, baseball, tennis and other sports. Since his childhood, he was also given the chance to try his hand at a variety of sports. Mizutani played soccer and received swimming lessons until around third-grade in elementary school, and then played softball until the sixth-grade. His parents let him play in the mountains and fields in the neighborhood during the summer and took him on ski trips during the winter. Eventually, table tennis turned out to be the sole sport that Mizutani kept on playing. As his father Nobuo was a table tennis instructor for a local boys' sports club, Mizutani would play table tennis with his father upon his return home from work every evening during his elementary school days.

Jun Mizutani smiles with his bronze medal at the Riocentro Pavilion in Rio de Janeiro on Aug. 11, 2016. (Mainichi Photo/Masahiro Ogawa)

In his junior high and high school days, Mizutani learned table tennis in Germany with support from the Japan Table Tennis Association. He felt lonely, though, as he was not able to fit in with the team nor produce desirable results. "It was tough as I was unable to make myself understood (in German)," he recalled.

Japan head coach Yosuke Kurashima remembers how extraordinary Mizutani was when he first saw him as a sixth-grader elementary student. Dubbed a "genius," Mizutani rose to stardom, competing in the 2008 Beijing Olympics at age 19. "As my childhood dream came true, I felt no pressure but only excitement," he recalls. In the 2012 London Games, however, he felt the pressure as someone third-seeded and closest to Japan's first medal in men's singles table tennis. After ending his run in the fourth round, however, he fell into a slump, being defeated in the first round of the world championships and finishing early in other events. "I reached the bottom, with my table tennis career in a mess," he said as he looked back upon those days.

What brought him back on the right track was the presence of his wife and child. As they always encouraged him to stay positive, Mizutani promised to himself, "I will make my family delighted." Prior to the Aug. 11 games, his wife told him, "You're the best aside from the Chinese player. Please be confident." The rest was history. (By Hiroyuki Asatsuma, Mainichi Shimbun)

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