At February’s PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympics, team Japan will be hoping for much better results than they managed at the Turin Games in 2006. Back then there was only one shining light as Shizuka Arakawa became the first individual from this country to win a gold medal in figure skating. It was a memorable achievement that was celebrated up and down the land. The years of vigorous training, early mornings and strict dieting had all been worth it as the elegant skater realized her lifelong dream.
As for the rest of the Japanese competitors, there was little to get excited about. Expectations were high going into the Games, yet just one athlete managed to make the podium. Among those tipped to challenge for a medal was 17-year-old snowboarder Melo Imai in the halfpipe competition. She had made remarkable progress since becoming a professional aged just 12 and was in good form going into the event, but in the end finished last in the qualifying round after injuring her torso and abdomen. The contrast between the youngster and the successful Arakawa could not have been any starker. While the latter cried tears of joy, Imai was a blubbering wreck.
Despite still being in her teens, it was effectively the end of what had looked like an extremely promising career. She competed again and won at the Takasaki Cup in 2008, but her heart wasn’t really in it. The physical pain she was able to recover from, but the mental anguish went much deeper. The youngster grew to resent snowboarding and everything it represented. The fun element had gone. It was simply about winning and the pressure had become insufferable.
“Leading up to the Games I had this constant fear of failure, like a choking feeling. It was the same throughout my career”
“For many athletes the Olympics is the pinnacle of their career, but for me it was a nightmare,” Imai tells Weekender. “I don’t just mean because I got injured and failed to progress. The whole experience was terrible. Leading up to the Games I had this constant fear of failure, like a choking feeling. It was the same throughout my career.”
The feeling that she constantly needed to please her father was one of the main reasons for the stress, especially in the early days. “I knew if I lost he would be angry,” recalls Imai. “When I won he would compliment me, and that was my motivation. I wasn’t doing it for myself at all. He was delighted that I qualified for the Olympics; however, in the months leading up to the Games I stopped contacting him. I thought that would give me a new lease on life, but I was then winning tournaments and not feeling anything. I started to question what it really meant to be number one. Even if I’d finished first in Turin, I don’t think I would have been satisfied. I wish I hadn’t gone.”
Imai began snowboarding at the age of seven along with her nine-year-old brother Dome Narita. They had been encouraged to take up the sport by their father Takasha Narita, who founded a snowboarding club in Japan after being impressed by a kids’ school he took them to in Canada. His children quickly became the star pupils, and Narita pushed them hard so they would be able to reach their potential.
It soon had the desired effect. At the age of 14, Imai became the world junior halfpipe champion, and in the build-up to the 2016 Olympics she defeated a number of top contenders including eventual silver medalist Lindsey Jacobellis. From the outside she looked like a carefree teen living the dream, but the reality was somewhat different. Training sessions were tough with an emphasis on discipline and hard work rather than enjoyment, and away from the snow there was little respite.
“We would often go to Nagano to practice, and work on our technique with a trampoline at our home in Osaka,” recalls Imai. “Training would usually start at 5am and sometimes I wouldn’t be finished until 11 at night. Dad said we should be constantly focusing on snowboarding, so I didn’t have to attend school. As a result, I didn’t get much of an education.”
She also wasn’t allowed a social life. “My hair was short, and I always wore training pants,” says the former Olympian. “I didn’t have the opportunity to be like other girls, wearing make-up, going to karaoke, shopping with friends and so on. I envied people my age having the freedom to do the kind of things that are considered normal for most teenagers. It just wasn’t an option for me as I felt I couldn’t disobey my father.”
Eventually it all became too much. She broke off ties with the man who had got her into snowboarding in the first place, and changed her name from Narita to her mother’s maiden name of Imai. Her brother had stopped working with his father months earlier. Dome, who is now a minor celebrity in Japan, was also seen as a genuine contender for a medal in Turin, but like his sister failed to qualify for the final. He continued competing for another year before turning his back on the sport following an injury. For a long period he couldn’t even look at a snowboard, and he completely withdrew from society.
Imai had an even tougher time. After initially shutting herself away, she tried to rebuild her life, but with no qualifications or skills except for snowboarding and wake boarding, it proved difficult. She struggled to make ends meet working at a convenience store and family restaurant.
But in recent years things have been looking up. She has worked as a gravure idol (a model who appears in magazines, photobooks or DVDs targeted at men) and has featured in some more adult material, which she says has helped to clear her debt. A single mother of two, her children are the most important part of her life, and she doesn’t want her own financial difficulties to impact on their lives. Working as a model has also helped to give the 27-year-old more confidence in herself.
“I used to be really shy and felt that I always needed to cover my body,” she says. “That is something that has changed in recent years. I’ve had work done, but it isn’t the only reason. Since I started working as a gravure idol in 2013, I began to believe in myself much more. To do that kind of job you can’t be a shrinking violet. It has helped me a lot.”
Often portrayed as a tragic figure by the press, Imai comes across as quite a positive character when you meet her in person. There have been a number of low points down the years, but she doesn’t regret the decisions she’s made and insists that she’s now in a happy place.
“There’s been a lot written about my life in magazines and newspapers, but I believe people shouldn’t judge me based on what they’ve read,” Imai says. “Speak to me and you will see that not everything is negative in my life. I’m enjoying my work as a gravure idol and am back snowboarding again. I’m also coaching the sport to various kinds of people, including my son and daughter. I want to make it fun without putting them under any pressure at all: The exact opposite to how I was taught.”