SPOILERS for the entire After the Rain manga.
When I was 13, a doctor told me that if I seriously injured my knees again, I would have to give up playing tennis. That was the first of three times I would have to stop playing. It’s a weird feeling to be told something with that much finality at such a young age, especially when you’re still discovering what your passions are
I haven’t picked up a tennis racket seriously in almost two years. What I have picked up in the last few months is Jun Mayuzuki’s manga: After the Rain.
I’ve been playing tennis for 19 years, since I was five. I wasn’t a “professional,” nor trying to be, but I was competitive. I was ranked in the top ten players in my age group and division in my region in middle school. I placed at the state high school tournament in doubles, and competed at nationals multiple times for college club tennis. I don’t mention all this to brag, but rather to provide context for how much of my life growing up was devoted to competitive athletics.
In the manga After the Rain, 17-year-old Akira Tachibana, a former record-setting track star, struggles with not being able to run after tearing her Achilles’ tendon. As a way to cope, she develops a crush on the 45-year-old manager of a restaurant and starts working there.
Despite early criticisms of its age-gap romance, it turned out to be more about two people who are trying to find a part of themselves again after losing something essential. I didn’t expect to become so emotionally invested in Akira’s journey as a competitive athlete suffering with the depressive fallout from being injured.
Series that focus on non-cis male athletes in a serious, competitive environment, let alone deal with the mental health issues that some athletes face, are rare and valuable. I was absorbed with how much I saw my own relationship with tennis in Akira’s relationship with track, and that it wasn’t cute. It hurt.
That brings us back to my knees. The official diagnosis was a pretty extreme case of Runner’s Knee. I often say that my knees gave out before I did, because I was close to quitting anyway. I was so focused on my ranking, being seeded at tournaments every few weeks, and winning that the fun had vanished. It was a classic case of child athlete burnout.
On top of that, I was trying to prove myself to an unhealthily competitive coach who said things like: “tournaments shouldn’t give trophies out to anything but first because it teaches kids to settle.” I was the only girl in my class full of teenage boys, and my classmates used bullying as a motivator if I couldn’t keep up in workouts. I was determined not to appear weak. I had to be just as good as the boys so I could be taken seriously, or so I had been conditioned to believe.
I secretly fantasized about dropping my racket mid-practice and walking off the court into the sunset, eventually becoming a star athlete in some other sport that my coach would hear about, because that would really show him. I didn’t do that, though. I’m not “athletic.” I am good at tennis only because I have played since my brain could register memories. I was also too scared to leave, because I thought if I quit that would be admitting I couldn’t keep up.
The unspoken bar in sports is more often than not set to the standards of cisgender, abled, male bodies. Anyone who wants to be treated fairly is required to physically meet that. The concept of equality in treatment for athletics is used to dismiss individuals who are fighting for equitable treatment.
In tennis, this is best represented by champion Serena Williams, one of the greatest tennis players of all time, who has been fighting against both racism and sexism in the sport her entire career. Last year she fell victim to a power play by a male umpire in the U.S. Open final, alongside Naomi Osaka. We see similar battles with the U.S. Women’s World Cup Team and runner Caster Semenya. It is even more of an uphill climb for any disabled athlete, athlete of color, nonbinary or transgender athlete, or any combination thereof; which I, as a cisgender white woman, am not even going to try to pretend like I can relate to.
I stopped speaking up when something hurt because I wanted to be just as strong as the boys. Runner’s Knee is rarely a serious issue, but mine was. I had been playing on bad knees for maybe four months when I finally stopped because pain shot through me just by bending them. Double that to walk up stairs, and whenever I bent down my knee would pop and sound like a bone just snapped.
I finally told someone I was in pain because just moving hurt. Then I was told I couldn’t injure my knees that badly again. I sat on the couch at home slowly doing physical therapy and watching my regional ranking fall until, when thinking of me, people would only wonder, “Whatever happened to her?”
Akira has to face that question as well. She both lashes out in response and retreats into her shell. When her teammates come to the diner where she works, she doesn’t want them to return. She wants to keep her lives separate.
A turning point happens when Mizuki, an up-and-coming track star from a rival team who once looked up to Akira, discovers that she no longer runs and confronts her about it. She reveals that she suffered from the same injury and post-recovery has still been beating her past records.
This confrontation offers a tactfully-written look into Akira’s mind. Akira will never admit it openly, internally or out loud, but she clearly misses running. Despite this, her injury is just as psychological as it is physical, and the fear stemming from that causes her to hide by relying on Kondo and the diner.
I would eventually return to tennis of my own accord in high school, when I realized I actually missed the sport. I played varsity all four years and went to state three out of the four. I had already decided that I wasn’t going to try for any sort of college tennis scholarship, which my former coach had planned for me when I was in sixth grade.
I struggled to reconcile the fact that while I played for fun, I still wanted to win and be taken seriously by my teammates. This was amplified when I severely rolled both my ankles within months of each other my senior year, which I had planned to be my final hurrah. I still played, but I was wearing four braces and secretly terrified of re-injuring myself again.
This led to a unique kind of body image issue. Because I couldn’t be as active, I naturally gained weight, which people pointed out. However, there was a separate resentment of my body, one that I think was more serious than I realized at the time.
I thought my body had failed me. I secretly hated pictures of myself playing tennis, because I didn’t want to see my body covered in braces. Every brace I had to add felt like an additional target, screaming that a part of me was weak before the match even started.
Akira doesn’t mention hiding her scar, but Mayuzuki’s thoughtful detail shows, rather than tells, with panels that reveal Akira’s consistent long socks; a small detail, but one that seems to always be included when she’s feeling self-conscious. Nor does Akira explicitly discuss why she refuses to return to track, but it clearly isn’t just because of Kondo.
She shows signs of internal, rather than external conflict, which comes to a head when Akira snaps at her mother’s reluctance to throw out her old track gear. This is tenderly resolved later in the volume, where Akira quietly asks her mother not to throw her gear out after all.
Unlike Akira, I have come to terms with my own reasons for not returning to tennis. In college, I continued to play competitively as part of a co-ed club team and travel nationally. My new teammates found ways to make me laugh at my braces instead of hating them. A dear teammate endearingly dubbed my lace-up ankle braces my “leg corsets.”
At one point, due to a tennis elbow injury, I was wearing braces on five of my joints. One of my co-captains would call me “Fabric Woman” like some strange superhero on the court. These nicknames were always affectionate rather than malicious. In a way, my teammates helped me accept my injuries.
Unfortunately, college was also where my mental health disorders really came to the forefront. I struggled with mild major depressive disorder and undiagnosed generalized anxiety disorder. I reached the point where I was having borderline panic attacks on the court.
Since I couldn’t articulate what was happening, I slowly distanced myself out of guilt. Like Akira, I even snapped at my mother when she asked why I didn’t play anymore. How could I explain a feeling that I couldn’t rationalize? It felt petty.
The reality was: I had prided myself on my mental game for years. As a junior player, I was known for my ability to make a comeback. With my self-perceived weak body, this was where my strength as an athlete lay. My mental health disorders took that away from me. I lashed out at my teammates and family, people I cared about deeply. I was ashamed and felt my entire identity as an athlete after over ten years had been stolen from me. I didn’t know how integral it was to how I defined myself until it was gone.
It’s been two years since then. I check out After the Rain from the library and I meet Akira. I meet her injury. I meet her teammates. I meet her rival. I meet her mother. I meet her avoidance. I meet her love of track. I see everything I avoided for two years in these pages. I devour the next three volumes.
My dad asks me if I’d like to casually hit some tennis balls with him (my parents never gave up) and I say yes. The entire time I’m playing, I think about Akira, and myself, and what brought us to where we are.
Why do we push our bodies beyond what is healthy? What was the pressure I felt? How can the athletic part of society (players, administrators, and consumers) prevent this from happening? We have to change the standard.
I look back to my knees. It all started there. My brain was so focused on what I couldn’t be. I couldn’t be the “weak girl.” I had to “keep up with the boys.” Changing the standard isn’t easy, but we should stop treating it like it’s impossible.
It seems like such a big concept to fall down that rabbit hole after reading a manga, but here I am. Seeing my struggles reflected in Akira opened a floodgate of emotions and passions and made me care about my sport again.
In the final volume, Akira’s resistance mirrored my own. She needed a few final pushes from her doctor, her friends, family, rivals, and even one last farewell from Kondo. I also wouldn’t have picked up a racket again if I wasn’t pushed by those who hadn’t given up on me.
In the final chapter, when Akira is confronted by a manifestation of her own anxiety just before her first race since the injury, I felt a wave of emotions crash over me. Mayuzuki places what might be the most relatable part of the story at the end, the fact that all athletes are up against ourselves. Our own thoughts will always try to invade our head in the middle of a match, game, bout, meet, and so on. Akira looks at her past self and confirms her fear, but reminds herself that she’s more afraid of never running again.
I paused at that point. Wasn’t that my real fear every time I went to the doctor with a new injury? Wasn’t I afraid of never being able to feel the moment my racket connects with the ball again?
Akira and I had to come back to our sports of our own volition, but we couldn’t have done it without the people who cared about us. That’s what injuries make you forget as an athlete: that you aren’t alone.
I’m grateful to Akira. I’m grateful to Jun Mayuzuki. I’m grateful to Vertical Comics for licensing this series. I’m grateful to everyone in my life who didn’t give up on me. Akira is a runner. She is an athlete. That is a fundamental part of who she is. She loves it. It was a joy watching her remember her identity as such, and thanks to her I’m motivated to pick up my racket and take back mine.