Otsukaresamadeshita - A Japanese expression with multiple uses and meanings, but usually used when aiming to appreciate or value somebody's hard work.
A phrase that can be said the way of Australian Cycling Team member Steph Morton who, despite a storming 2017/18 summer season which netted triple Commonwealth Games gold, World Championship sprint silver, and three national crowns, has allowed herself little time for celebration or rest.
A week after leaving the Games Village on the Gold Coast in April, the South Australian flew to Japan to contest her second season of the lucrative, invitation-only Japanese Keirin Series.
Morton sat down with us this week to talk about the Japanese racing and cultural experience, what they really get up to during ‘lockdown’, the joy of balancing racing and study, and of course, the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games which is little more than two years away.
"When you get an invitation, you grab it with both hands."
SPRINTER’S BUCKET LIST: The Series features thousands of registered Japanese riders who are joined by a select few international riders, and as one of the country’s top legalised gambling sports, is highly regulated.
This year I have come in just after the Commonwealth Games, at the back end of my break, so racing this year has been different. I have had to rely more on my tactics and race knowledge rather than my legs.
But even after a small break and off the back of the Games, I have come here in good form. I have completed five races all up, one more than 2017, over the two-month period, and I have grabbed two firsts and two seconds so I am really stoked considering.
But here it is not just about the racing and the money. Even if there wasn’t the prize money involved, it is still a great life experience. We get to race different girls every time, meeting new people, learning new things.
It is not often you get to come to a race and honestly just be able to have fun. Every other race we do there is usually either a selection pending, or you feel you have to perform to justify your position, but here you can enjoy the experience and have fun.
Not that I don’t normally enjoy racing, that’s not what I am saying, it is just different here, it is more relaxed which is quite refreshing.
You still obviously want to win as people are putting money on you to win, but with regards to the stress of international racing, you have a bit more freedom to relax.
It is a great experience, and definitely a bucket list item for a sprinter to get an invite here. When you get an invitation, you grab it with both hands.
"Because you have no technology, you can’t watch funny cat videos on YouTube, but it is quite refreshing."
LOCKDOWN, OLD SCHOOL TECHNOLOGY & SOLITUDE: Riders are placed into lockdown for days prior each race without technology to prevent any race tactics or information from reaching the outside world.
We are usually in lockdown for three days ahead of race day. The first day when you arrive is called Zenken Day, when you do your medical checks, build your bike and have bike inspections.
After that, you get some time to train but as the women only get 20 minutes a day to go on the track, once you’re done with that, you have to pass the time any way you can.
It is tough at first because you have no technology and you can’t watch funny cat videos on YouTube, but it is quite refreshing.
It does deprive you of time you could be studying, getting assignments done, or watching lectures, so I have to be on the ball and planning what readings could I be doing, how could I be making use of my time without technology.
Many of the riders bring old school things like portable DVD players, I didn’t even know they still existed, as you can’t bring anything that has a connection to the outside world. No phones, laptops.
Also, through the translator, we talk to the Japanese girls a lot. Despite the language barrier, we have a really good time in lockdown and learn a lot from each other.
"I actually wish I had started study earlier, but I didn’t realise you could manage study and a cycling career."
MONEY, STUDY AND WORK-LIFE BALANCE: The Japanese Keirin Series affords Morton a rare chance to earn substantial prize money from racing, and allows her to continue her study towards completing her Bachelor of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Griffith University.
Track cycling in general as a sport is quite hard to make money, so it is nice to come over here, even if only for a short time.
We don’t get superannuation, we are paid off of results and performances, One year you might get a result or season and one year you might not, that is just the reality and nature of sport.
The girls racing here for the full season are earning big bucks and good on them. For the rest of us, this is a bit of a security blanket, as money like this can help to set me up for later in life.
But (study) is also a good distraction from the racing. In between training sessions, or if I have a free afternoon I can do something productive rather than watching Netflix.
Yes, it can add a level of complexity studying over here as I had to get my exams papers sent over here and one of the university staff had to sit in for two hours and watch me do my exam.
But I believe that not enough people are doing enough away from cycling, it is easy to get caught up in the moment of cycling.
I actually wish I had started to study earlier, but I didn’t realise you could manage study and a cycling career.
Now, I am just chipping away doing one subject at a time, and I can put in 100% in one subject each semester.
It will take me a while, but when I retire from cycling, I won’t have too much to go.
"As the Games get closer the racing just gets harder, everyone is getting hungrier and getting faster."
TOWARD TOKYO 2020: The 2018/19 season marks the opening of the qualification period for track cycling ahead of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games beginning with the Oceania Championships.
I am looking forward to heading home and getting a really solid block of training in Adelaide with the whole Australian Cycling Team and staff around me.
Sometimes I have been at the indoor track completely all by myself training, so when you’re used to having a full squad of athletes and staff around you at training, you have to motivate yourself, you don’t have your teammates yelling at your during an effort.
I have had a bit of success over the past two years, but we are heading into the finals two years and that is where the ante really steps up.
As the Games get closer the racing just gets harder, everyone is getting hungrier, everyone is getting faster.
But I try not to get too caught up in what has been, and what could be, I have to keep focusing on myself. Which is hard as an athlete, it is hard not to see what others are doing and their results, but you have to block it out and focus on yourself.
And I am really excited for the coming season which will be here before you know it. But I won’t be going into every race expecting to win it, that is not realistic. As sometimes you learn the most when you lose. Getting the win is great but sometimes bot getting the win is also great.
It is going to be a hard slog back in Adelaide, but I am ready for the big push toward Tokyo. Getting out of your comfort zone is the only way you can get better.
As long as I done everything I can do in application to training, recovery and working on what I need to, then I that is all I can do.
To be here racing, and be part of the hype before the Olympic Games, is amazing. We train on the Olympic Velodrome regularly, we have been driven to where the Athletes Village will be, it has been a great privilege.
It makes you realise the Japanese team has a huge advantage, as not often is the Olympic Velodrome built so far in advance from a Games.
It is nice to be able to get some time on the track, get comfortable on it and hopefully if I am there in 2020, it will feel second nature.
Photos courtesy Steph Morton, Girls Keirin, Natasha Hansen, MoreCadence