JEDDAH: Most top-level equestrian riders start their riding careers at a young age, often before their teens. But for 21-year-old Mike Kawai, the journey to the top has been very different.
The Osaka-raised star began riding when he was 15, which many in the sport would say is too old to reach a competitive level, let alone international standard.
However, with his eyes set on the 2020 Olympics in his home country, Kawai’s career took him from Japan to the Netherlands. Now he is hoping to make a return to compete in the Tokyo summer games.
“I started to ride when I was 15 because my father pushed me to do so,” he said. “I used to ride when I was little, but I did not like it, so I stopped.”
But slowly he grew to liking horses, riding and training every day for three years, and competing in junior jumping competitions across Japan. Then he started winning.
“I managed to win in a first-class competition, which changed everything,” Kawai said.
Seeing that his son could compete and win, Kawai’s father told him that he could become not only a world-class equestrian, but also an Olympic athlete. He urged his son to start preparing for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
“When I was 17, my father said: You should go to the Tokyo Olympics.’ I was jumping the 1.20m at the time, so it seemed impossible to be able to make it to the Olympics,” he said.
I started to ride when I was 15 because my father pushed me to do so,” he said. “I used to ride when I was little, but I did not like it, so I stopped.
Mike Kawai, Equestrian rider
At age 18, with his father’s blessing, Kawai quit high school in Osaka and moved to the Netherlands to train at some of the finest stables in the world. “My father said, go to the best stable so you can prepare for the Olympics, so I left school and moved to Europe.”
Kawai’s decision paid off. He won his first international classes in 2018 in Opglabbeek in Belgium and claimed his first ranking class the same year at the Global Champions Prague Playoffs.
Now in Saudi Arabia for the FEI-sanctioned Diriyah Equestrian Festival and with points counting toward qualifying for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, Kawai achieved a career best in the 1.60m World Cup competition, producing a double clear round in 38.73 seconds. “It was my best-ever result, so it is important that I’m competing here,” Kawai said.
“I will have the opportunity to compete in the Olympics in my home country only once in my life. I trust my horses and I trust myself.”
The Diriyah Equestrian Festival has returned for its second and final weekend as equestrians gear up for what is a crucial event in qualification for Tokyo.
The festival is part of the wider Diriyah Season, a month of sports events such as Formula E, top-class men’s tennis and the world heavyweight title fight the Clash On The Dunes.