This featured appeared in the Arizona Daily Sun in December 2004.
By Ed Odeven
Anthony makes a splash in Japan
Your job keeps you in constant contact with elite-level coaches and athletes from around the world. You take great pride in meeting their needs, being flexible, being accommodating, being understanding.
Your job gives you an insider’s look at the day-to-day routines of Olympians.
Your eight years working at Northern Arizona’s High Altitude Sports Training Complex have been challenging, fun times, not to mention rewarding in the relationships you’ve built with teams, especially Japanese clubs.
Your name is Sean Anthony, Flagstaff’s unofficial savant of Japanese-American sports diplomacy, HASTC’s assistant director.
And so after hosting dozens of Japanese swim teams, including the national team, over the years you were intrigued and excited about the prospect of being an invited guest of the Tokyo Swimming Center to The Land of the Rising Sun in November. Anthony’s wife, Cari, and 4-year-old son, Jonah, went with him on this 11-day, all-expenses paid trip.
This, of course, was a reversal in roles. Accustomed to being the host here in town, Anthony got a chance to experience Japanese culture, which places great significance on guest-host protocol, as an honored guest in Japan.
“They treated me like a special person,” Anthony said, summarizing his first visit to Japan.
It began when he was warmly greeted at Narita Airport by Shigeo Ogata, a well-known, three-time Olympic swimmer and a key figure in his nation’s swimming community, and HASTC regular Norimasa Hirai, the Tokyo Swimming Center coach whose star pupil, Kosuke Kitajima, won gold medals in the men’s 100- and 200-meter breaststroke at the 2004 Athens Games. Hirai drove the Anthony’s to the Tokyo Dome Hotel, with Ogata assisting them in getting checked into the hotel.
This common courtesy was a hallmark of Anthony’s trip. So, too, was the number of people and places he’d see on his trip — and the business cards that filled up his coat pocket.
There was a family trip to Kyoto, which included an enchanting stroll through a park with views of Zen Buddhist temples and vivid maple leaves in all their glorious color. (The pictures, “they just don’t do it justice. … It was magical,” Anthony said. “There’s two times of year you want to be in Kyoto, Japan: One is during cherry blossom season in the spring and one is during the fall when the leaves are changing.” Usually, Anthony was informed, the leaves change colors at end of October or early November. This year, though, autumn splendor was still around for late-November visitors like Anthony.)
There was a tour of the state-of-the-art, seven-story Japan Institute of Sports Sciences complex.
There was an information-presentation meeting with Yasuhiro Nakamori, the deputy director of the Japanese Olympic Committee’s International Relations Department, about HASTC. Anthony said he hopes this presentation will lead to future discussions with other Japanese sports’ national governing bodies about sending teams here for high-altitude camps.
And there were two special functions Anthony attended: The 80th annual Japan Sports Federation banquet, where he met “a veritable who’s who of Japanese swimming” including JASF chairman Shinji Higashijima, and the Tokyo Swimming Center Invitational, where he served as a medal presenter.
In both places, Anthony found himself the center of attention more times than not.
“(At the banquet) it felt like I was almost holding court,” he said, “because as I sat there all these coaches that I’ve come to know over the years would come up to me, or Kyoko (Iwasaki, a 1992 gold medalist) would come up to me or people would come up to me at this table. It’s almost like they were paying their respects.”
During the swim meet, he did interviews with a Japanese swimming magazine and the Asahi Shimbun, the world’s second-largest circulation newspaper, describing HASTC’s special relationship with Japanese swim teams.
Also that day, Anthony and HASTC were officially recognized by the Tokyo Swimming Center with a certificate of appreciation written in both English and Japanese.
But most of all, the trip solidified HASTC’s relationship with the JASF for years to come.
“To have the head coach of the national team, the head Olympic coach, Koji Ueno, come right out and say that he’s interested in this long-term association with our organization, and that they want to come here and that they want to commit to coming here for four years leading up to Beijing (the 2008 Summer Games), that’s huge for us,” Anthony said.
“We’ve never had a commitment from any team to say, ‘We’re going to come here for the next four years.’ “
For Anthony, a trip to Hirai’s favorite Tokyo restaurant provided a whimsical, movie-like memory that captured the essence of his trip. The place, known as Makiei, is a neighborhood restaurant frequented by Hirai and Kitajima, with photos of them adorning the walls. A traditional, home-style eatery, it’s a place where you don’t order; food is just placed in front of you — and you tell the staff when you’ve had enough of each course.
It was here where Kitajima handed Anthony his gold medal.
“The way he presented it to me was funny,” Anthony recalled, laughing. “He was sitting next to me … and was eating, and then all of a sudden he kind of turns to me and kind of gives me a little nudge and … he reaches out and takes it out of his pocket kind of casually.
“I thought, How many people carry an Olympic gold medal around in their pocket?” he continued. “I couldn’t help but think, My God, I’ve been working here for eight years, I’ve worked with some of the finest Olympians from around the world, and I’m finally holding an Olympic medal in my hand.”
Did many people see this happen?
“It was a weighty moment. Pretty much all conversations had stopped as he pulled this thing out of his pocket and handed it to me,” Anthony said. “Everyone took a picture of me with Kosuke holding this gold meal. That was pretty neat.
“It felt like a culmination of all the years we’ve worked with all these teams to be able to be sitting there at a restaurant in a foreign country with a foreign athlete, holding a gold medal in my hand.”
Indeed, a well-deserved honor.