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  • Joseph Polack


Updated: Aug 23, 2021

A last-minute invitation to join an Olympic Security Team during the pandemic was as surprising for me as challenging for my fellow Japanese lifesavers.

Athletes competing for Olympic medals in watersports in our Enoshima neighborhood came from sixty countries spread over five continents.

Some olympians were vaccinated, others were not. And not all the volunteers of our Japanese Olympic Security Team managed to get fully vaccinated on time. I was lucky to get my second injection two weeks before Olympics.

Keeping our protective masks on seemed easier onshore than getting dozens of our personal water-crafts (PWC) into the ocean against the wind.

Typhoon No 8 was on the way. As always our patrolling PWCs needed to be ready for their ocean duties at short notice. Our officially accredited Olympic group of several dozens of lifesavers was stationed inside the heavily guarded Enoshima Yacht Harbor.

Police helicopters hovered in the air. Coast Guard vessels were surrounding the large ocean area around Enoshima and Kamakura. The overt and covert security cameras were installed all over the Olympic sailing venue.

The multiple controls along the fenced harbor (that was only 15 min bicycle ride away from my home) were getting stricter the closer I was getting to my guard post.

After having my entrance pass checked at the gate, both my body and my backpack were screened with a portable security detector. It was followed by an antivirus disinfection. Only then I could rejoin our group and focus on my PWC team’s daily duties.

Depending on the shifting winds and waves, the athletes’ racing schedule was frequently readjusted. And so were our PWC teams. We had to be prepared to deploy our safety equipment in the ocean at any moment.

Our job was to respond to any emergency and protect the racing zone. As trained lifeguards and sea rescuers we were equipped to respond to any life endangering situations.

Our fast PWCs could quickly spot and detour any jet ski riders on collision course with the Olympic wind-surfers and the competing boats.

The ocean at the Enoshima-Kamakura-Zushi Olympic triangle is unpredictable. Two years ago a senior surfer preparing for a local race was killed by thunder. There was no rain that day. Another time, a young foreigner training for a race was suddenly carried away by treacherous undercurrents. At the time of the incident, the sea was calm and the day sunny. His body was never found.

There were many other horrific offshore accidents involving foreign visitors that I have witnessed along our Shonan coast in the past years. Some of the victims were not used to typhoons. Others, were lured by the calm after storm. The weather could change in a matter of minutes.

Every summer there was a growing number of offshore casualties.

Three years before the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, one of our local SURF90 lifesavers, Kazumasa Hattori, had an idea of developing a grassroots Olympic Security Team made up of local volunteers.

Kazumasa shared his idea with another fellow member of the SURF90 Fujisawa Lifesaving Group, a veteran firefighter Yuzuru Sato.

Though Kazumasa and Yuzuru were approaching retirement age and had decades of sea rescue experiences, building a grassroots Olympic Security Team seemed for our neighbors nothing less than certain failure. The Fujisawa Lifesaving Club only had access to an eight year old PWC, and an even older mini truck to transport their watercraft and other safety equipment.

Then another dreamer and experienced yachtsman, Seiji Yamamoto, became interested in helping this community project. Seiji, who had developed a nation-wide educational network of sea volunteers and rescuers called “Seabird Japan”, knew Kazumasa well. It was Seiji’s Seabird Association that arranged for Kazumasa’s SURF90 lifesavers a patrolling PWC. Many lives were saved by Seabirds’ gift.

Seiji’s trust in Kazumasa & Yuzuru like-minded volunteers seemed to be rooted in his own youth made of sea adventures. Though each of these three men that I befriended during my volunteering at the Olympic Security Team belonged to different walks of life, they shared a common love for the sea. And were not afraid to dream about a secure and clean ocean. Gradually, our chats between our daily work at the Enoshima Yacht Harbor became longer, and more open.

The Seabird & SURF90 volunteering networks joined the forces and Kazumasa’s grassroots dream turned into a project that was proposed to the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Organizing Committee.

What was supposed to be a minor local project generated synergy that attracted lifesavers from as far away as northern Hokkaido and southern Kagoshima.

My sudden involvement in this Olympic volunteering project took me by surprise: A month before the Olympics I got an unexpected email from my Kamakura Lifeguard Captain Terasaki and Seabird’s Seiji Yamamoto.

Seiji who was familiar with my 9 years of volunteering at the SURF90 Kamakura Lifesaving Club and Rough Water Races, invited me out of the blue to join an Olympic Security Team. A week later I received another unexpected email from Kazumasa Hattori. He invited me to join the Olympic Security Team lead by veteran firefighter Yuzuru Sato.

For my first official day of duty, I reported to the Enoshima Olympic Harbor with my Swedish passport, Foreign Resident ID, SURF90 Annual Insurance, and my bilingual fellow member of the Kamakura Henna Gaijin Swimming Club, Atsuko Matsuda.

I was interviewed by Seabird’s Seiji, my field-team captain firefighter Yuzuru, and a local lifesaver whom I remembered from our Rough Water Races.

When I asked Atsuko, who was acting as an official interpreter, to whom I should show my Swedish & Japanese ID, I got a surprising response in a local Japanese dialect:

“You don’t need to. We know your credentials well.” “How?” I was taken aback. “You are that henna gaijin who swims in winter without wetsuit and pushes a baby wagon with your granddaughter along the beach at weekends... What’s her name?” “Sara, I said.” Two days later, I was handed by Kazumasa my official pass allowing me to enter the heavily guarded Olympic venue.

Neither my Swedish passport, nor my Japanese Foreign Resident’s Card was ever inspected.

Why did Seiji, Kazumasa, Yuzuru, and my other fellow lifesavers all have trust in me. I couldn't figure it out at first, but gradually our chats between servicing the watercrafts became more frequent and their stories more captivating.

“Over four decades ago when I was still a freshman at our University Yachting Team,” Seiji’s eyes lightened, “I fulfilled my dream of sailing from Tokyo to Okinawa... do you know where Okinawa is?”

“Yes, I did my anthropological field research for a year at Ryukyu Archipelago,” I said. Seiji gave me a probing look. “Was it left or right-side traffic over there?” “Left,” I said. “It was still right side American-style driving when I moored our boat at Naha harbor. A year later, when I sailed to Naha again, Okinawa had just been returned to Japan and the traffic turned left again.” “1972, wasn’t it?” “Yes, I was still an undergraduate. We celebrated the reversion of Okinawa by joining a big yachting race Naha-Tokyo. And though our young crew reached the finish line in the ending group, I was so hooked on yachting that I joined Yamaha Motor Corp that was producing yacht and marine engines...”

Before Seji finished his story, Kazumasa arrived with a pioneer of local lifesaving Satoshi Kuchiki.

They informed us about the newly revised racing schedule and instructed me to help Yuzuru in preparation of our watercraft for departure.

When Yuzuru with our other teammates sped away to guard the restricted Olympic waters, Kazumasa guided me and Atsuko to a refueling area. Though we had valid passes the guards went through their very detailed inspection routines. The place was filled with gasoline canisters.

Our three-person team transporting the canisters on the small cart was stopped several times. The guards were on alert.

The foreigners were expected to be either competing athletes or Olympic officials. And a single foreigner carrying a trunk filled with gasoline among Japanese looked out of place. It took Kazumasa a long time to convince the guards that I am on their lifesaving team and am responsible for refueling our watercraft for the next deployment.

“Don’t worry,” he cheered me up when we made it safely back to our base. “The Japanese guards aren’t used to dealing with foreigners carrying gasoline canisters in front of Olympic cameras.”

“Were you also like Seiji at the University Yacht Club?” I asked Kazumasa during lunch. “Not at all! I was on the student rugby team.” “Did you have any other sports hobby in your younger years?” “Yup! I was a shooter.” “In what discipline?” “Pistol,” he grinned. “Sports pistol. Actually, I was better in team games than solo sports. Maybe that’s why after getting a job at Shimizu Corporation, I joined the SURF90 Lifesaving team in Fujisawa. We got plenty of guys enjoying their Sunday volunteering at the beach.”

“Did you get many foreign lifesavers in your team?” I asked. “Not among seniors, but quite a few foreign youngsters have joined our Junior Lifeguards Program, from elementary school kids to high-schoolers.” When I mentioned that my Manhattan-born granddaughter Mia is six and will come to Japan after the Olympics are over, Kazumasa said she is welcome to try a SURF90 Junior Lifesaving Program.

“My daughter is a teacher in our neighborhood elementary school, so she may help her get used to rough water security for kids...”

Before Kazumasa managed to introduce me to his daughter who was a fellow volunteer on our team, Yuzuru was back from his sea patrolling duties and I was ordered to pull his and other watercrafts on shore.

My attempts to involve Yuzuru in any longer conversation about our two female neighbors competing in Olympic water sports at Enoshima were usually unsuccessful. He was a man of few words and kept his instructions brief and to the point.

“When you are pulling watercraft out of the water check who is on your team. Let the younger guys secure the underwater links first. Then follow the stronger guys pulling up the ropes. Did you get it?”

“I am not sure,” I said. “If you are not sure, we will pull out the PWC with my truck! Keep your fingers away from the security lock.”

Yuzuru, seemed very tough at first, but on my third day of working under his command, I felt secure. He knew exactly what I was doing wrong and corrected my mistakes without uttering a single word.

“Why did you join the Fire Squad,” I asked him when he was refueling his PWC. “It was so long ago that I don’t remember... Pass me the cover of the gasoline tank... keep your fingers safe. Good! How much gasoline did you put in... keep the water away!”

Only after we finished our work, he would rest next to his watercraft and spend a few minutes chatting about his coming retirement.

Being a Yokohama-based firefighter for almost four decades, he was preparing to change his life. “As much as I enjoy our Shonan Beaches, I dream to move to Okinawa. The sea is blue over there, and the beaches much cleaner,” he sighed.

“And who will take over your Chairmanship of SURF90 Fujisawa Lifesaving Club,” I wondered.

“Yup! I need to secure more volunteer lifesavers before going south... What about you, Atsuko? You are already fully vaccinated and we need more women on our lifesaving team...”

Before Atsuko replied, Yuzuru already assured her that the coming Sunday at 8 am she is welcome to join his lifesaving group.

As it was my and Atsuko’s last volunteering day on our Olympic Security Team, we were asked to share our experiences at the evening party. Since Atsuko’s next-door neighbor Amuro Tsuzuki just won bronze medal in surfing, she couldn’t hide her excitement and kept her spirits high.

Unfortunately my fellow Fujisawan and a four-times-Olympian in sailing, Ai Yoshida, missed her medal this time. But, according to Atsuko, an eccentric Dutchman with blue-colored hair who was living in a nearby Laguna Hotel was rumored to celebrate his newly won gold medal with our local volunteers.

My farewell Japanese presentation was short. I just mentioned to our group of two dozen volunteers about a single lesson I had learned from working together with the dreamers whose synergy made Olympic athletes feel safer.

How long will the Olympic grassroots spirit carried out against the odds by these aging dreamers survive, I don’t know.

The fifth wave of infections is on the way and the state of emergency brought by rapidly mutating COVID viruses is to be imposed in more of Japanese prefectures at the end of the Olympics.


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