A year after setting a Japanese women’s marathon record of 2:28:01 in Osaka, Yuko Arimori doggedly chased Valentina Yegorova through the hilly streets of Barcelona in 1992, ultimately finishing just eight seconds behind the Russian champion—and winning the first Olympic track and field medal by a Japanese woman in 64 years. After surgery on both heels in 1994, Arimori bounced back to get another marathon medal, a bronze, in Atlanta ’96. Those pioneering exploits, plus her fabled egao, or smiling face, and her preternatural patience with interviewers and fans, have made Yuko Arimori a very, very big deal in her country.
“Yuko’s one of the good guys,” says her American agent, Brendan Reilly. “Everybody in Japan knows who she is. The Emperor knows who she is.” In American terms, the slim 5-5 Arimori is frequently referred to as the Michael Jordan of Japan.
New Zealander Lorraine Moller, the bronze medalist behind Arimori in Barcelona and now her friend and fellow resident in the running mecca of Boulder, Colorado, recalls that “during the ’98 Winter Games in Nagano, which were huge for the Japanese, one of the cabinet ministers resigned in an enormous scandal. But Yuko had a ‘secret’ marriage here in Boulder,” to her American husband, Gabriel Wilson. “When that news broke, that became the top item in the news that night, upstaging the Olympics and the political scandal. She’s like royalty.”
Arimori, who will run the New York City Marathon for the first time on Sunday, is as omnipresent a pitchperson in Japanese media as Jordan is here. Among the many companies she shills for is Meji Foods, the maker of Vaam, the so-called “hornet juice” sports drink that was purportedly the secret weapon of Japan’s Sydney Olympic gold medal marathoner Naoko Takahashi.
But Arimori uses her celebrity mostly for selfless causes. Among other things, she works with Japan’s Special Olympics and gives motivational talks to children. “I don’t want to tell only running,” Arimori says in rudimentary English that is better than my Japanese. “I really want to say if you have something you want to do, you can do it. You should find your own really good talent. Then you can make your dream and you can do anything. I just want to tell children that.”
The United States’ “3M” sprinters—Marion, Maurice, and Michael—may be familiar, but fewer than one American in 100 could even name the other track and field gold medalists from little more than a month ago in Sydney (Nick Hysong? Angelo Taylor?). “The nice thing about Japan,” says agent Reilly, “is that they have longer-term memories than most countries on these things.”
Which shouldn’t really suggest that Arimori’s athletic glory is behind her at age 33. She set a career best of 2:26:39 in placing third at the 1999 Boston Marathon. But a disappointing ninth-place 2:31:22 at Osaka in January cost her a spot on the Japanese squad and any chance at a third Olympic medal. Arimori ended up commentating in Sydney for Japan’s Asahi Broadcasting, watching as Takahashi—who was from her same running club and had the same coach—metronomically and relentlessly raced to victory.
“When you see the gold medal go to Japan in the marathon, a lot of the credit can go to Yuko Arimori for that,” contends New Zealand runner Moller. “Yuko has spearheaded a running revolution among Japanese woman.” Reilly is sure that as she matured, “Naoko had to be seeing this and have a sense of what it actually means to get an Olympic medal and what it takes to get a medal.”
Back from Australia, Arimori has renewed her focus in training for New York, but ask her why she’s doing this race and she says, “The New York City Marathon is a wonderful race for charity.” It is, indeed, a fundraiser for pediatric cancer research at Memorial Sloan-Kettering; $5 million in runners’ pledges have been raised since 1994. Such charitable endeavors may be Arimori’s foremost priority in 2000. Her organization, Hearts of Gold, grew out of her first trip four years ago to the Angkor Wat Half-Marathon in Cambodia. Hearts of Gold raises money for Cambodian land-mine victims who require skin grafts, bone operations, and prosthetics. It has also raised funds for Mongolian orphans and for earthquake victims in Kobe, Japan. As Moller says, Arimori “is very socially conscious, very careful about how what she does affects the greater good of people.”
Meanwhile, Arimori has enjoyed living in the States, calling her life in Boulder “very comfortable for me.” The major appeal of the city, she says, is that “I could study many things from other runners from other countries,” including her pals Colleen De Reuck of South Africa and Nadia Prasad of France, both Boulder residents.
Arimori herself maintains “the Japanese mind is very suited to the marathon because you have to train so hard.” Moller believes her friend “has a steely determination. She’s never been a talented athlete, particularly. She’s gotten where she has because of her strong mind.” Reilly explains, “She likes to come out of her training thinking, ‘I’ve done something no one else can do. It’s going to give me the physical edge I need.’ ” Arimori may, for example, do six laps around the Boulder Reservoir, a total of 32 miles, at a 6:15 per mile pace. “That’s what the marathon’s all about,” insists Reilly. “You put in a lot of miles, that’s going to be your road to success. She goes into the race with no qualms, no worries.”
For Sunday in New York, “I’m in really good condition,” declares Arimori, whose resolve—despite her humbleness—seems more firm than it was for Osaka in January. “I can try and make a good pace. But it’s after the Olympic Games, so everybody will be in good condition. It’ll be a hard race. But I will try.”