Ito didn't speak a word of Spanish when he received an offer from Japan's government-funded overseas sports development program to serve as a volunteer table tennis coach in Latin America. But he jumped at the opportunity nevertheless.
"I thought I should do what I used to tell my students to do--make a commitment to build international harmony," he says.
Ito coached table tennis for nearly 40 years, and he was eager to share this experience with players around the world. He left his hometown in Aomori Prefecture and traveled to the town of Jocotitlan in northwestern Mexico to coach at local universities.
Table tennis enjoys modest popularity in the town but soccer has always been king. Every child plays growing up and retains a connection with the sport as adults. Ito hoped to cultivate a similar love for table tennis and immediately got to work trying to introduce it to wider parts of the population. There was one group in particular that he had his eyes on.
One of Ito's closest childhood friends was a keen table tennis player growing up. However, he was forced to give up the sport after an accident left him wheelchair-bound. Ito says he carried the memory of this friend throughout his years coaching. And he saw volunteering in Mexico as the perfect opportunity to do something in honor of this friend. In June 2018, he traveled to the National Training Center in Mexico City and asked if he could help the Paralympic table tennis team.
The head coach accepted his offer, convinced that an instructor with foreign experience could help motivate his players to improve and compete on the international level.
From then on, Ito drove from Jocotitlan to Mexico City every Monday, a five-hour round trip. This was on top of his regular volunteer work coaching at universities.
"Making the trip every week was tough," he says. "But I was so excited to be a part of Team Mexico. The athletes were just so passionate."
Connection with the athletes
One of the players Ito made a deep connection with was Victor Reyes. Growing up, Reyes was a fanatical soccer player and had dreams of becoming a pro. But when he was 10, he started feeling pain in his back. He was diagnosed with a degenerative muscle disease that gradually left him unable to move. He thought this meant he would eventually have to quit sports entirely.
Reyes says learning he had to give up his dreams was a traumatic experience. But his passion for sports didn't fade.
He discovered he could still play table tennis and he picked up the sport with an intensity that kept him committed even as his muscles weakened and put him in a wheelchair. At the age 14, he was noticed by coaches who added him to a list of candidates for the national team.
Reyes says working with Ito has helped take his game to the next level. He affectionately refers to him as his "papa de la vida", or mentor, and says his advice helped him master difficult techniques, like applying backspin to his strokes. And more generally, he says Ito taught him to believe in his talent.
"He always encouraged me to have confidence in whatever play I tried to pull off," Reyes says.
This summer, Reyes will attempt to become Mexico's first gold medalist in para-table tennis.
Ito also worked with the women's team and left a lasting impression on Claudia Perez.
Perez was 25 when rheumatism started to eat away at her body. She was eventually forced to wear prosthetic knees. She says her condition made it difficult to work and earn a living for her daughter. For many years, she was unable to even afford her own paddle.
"I would bring tacos from home for lunch because I didn't have the money to eat out," she recalls.
But she says, despite the challenges, she can look back happily on life because she has been able to do something she loves.
"Life is hard," she says. "But playing table tennis makes it worth it. I feel blessed to have found it."
She says working with Ito has been a great source of joy and that he inspires her to get better.
"I want to make my daughter and my coach proud," she says.
Lessons for the teacher
Ito says his time in Mexico taught him things about life he hadn't imagined learning in retirement.
"They worked hard to make the most of what they were given, instead of crying about what they don't have," he says.
Ito left Mexico last year, promising his players that he would see them in Tokyo. Now, he is counting down the days until the reunion. He says their resilience and professionalism is a lesson for everyone.