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Titan Spotlight

Kinesiology Grad Finds Purpose in Sports Research

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“Once you are a high school dropout, there is no future in Japan.”

This is where Ryutaro “Rio” Ichihara found himself 10 years ago. Ichihara was part of a soccer program at his high school in Japan, but felt that he didn’t fit with the culture. Following a period of depression for several semesters, he decided to drop out.

Determined to pursue a career as a professional soccer player, Ichihara sought new opportunities abroad, applying to various universities in America. This led him to Cal State Fullerton in 2016, where his Titan journey began.

Transitioning Goals

Ichihara first played on the men’s soccer team at CSUF, and later went on to play for the Hornets at Fullerton College. He balanced a heavy workload with dual enrollment, taking nine units to keep his status in the U.S. and 12 units to remain eligible to play soccer at Fullerton College. His talent and perseverance paid off when he won Fullerton College’s 2018 All-American Scholar-Athlete Award. Yet, despite his achievements, Ichihara began to feel burnt out after three years.

“I was so driven toward a soccer career, but at that time, it became so highly demanding,” he said. “And I realized, ‘I’m so tired of this.’

“Before I came to the U.S., soccer was my life. Then I came to beautiful Southern California, and I realized there’s so much more in life. I realized maybe it’s time to explore something else.”

That’s when Ichihara chose to transition away from soccer and pursue academics.

Academic Discovery

When he decided to stop playing soccer, Ichihara was an undergraduate kinesiology student. He chose kinesiology because he wanted to better understand how the body works, and he hoped that it would improve his soccer performance. Now, there were new paths to pursue within the field. With support from kinesiology faculty members Matthew Llewellyn and John Gleaves, he found a new career path.

After Ichihara earned his bachelor’s in kinesiology and started his master’s program, Gleaves supported him as he landed a teaching associate position at CSUF. This opportunity allowed him to financially support himself while also sparking his passion for education. He enjoyed building his kinesiology course from scratch and teaching a diverse population of undergraduate students.

The kinesiology department also provided Ichihara with other professional development opportunities. In 2023, he participated in the department’s study abroad program to Greece, the birthplace of kinesiology and philosophy. He also served as an exercise lead for the Employee Wellness Program, where he taught faculty and staff how to exercise and sustain an active lifestyle.

An Inclusive Phenomenon

Ichihara’s academic journey was building up to a critical moment — his thesis presentation. With an interest in kinesiology and philosophy, his research started with a focus on the meaning of sports and burnout among youth athletes. Over time, however, he found himself drawn to phenomenology, the philosophical study of objectivity, reality, and the human experience. His thesis began to take a new shape, and there was an impactful reason behind it.

“I have a brother with cerebral palsy,” Ichihara said. “I always wanted to understand how people with disability, especially people with cerebral palsy, perceive the world differently, and perceive the body and the movement differently compared to our experience.”

His final thesis titled “Towards True Inclusion: Developing a Phenomenology of Physical Activity with Cerebral Palsy” was a huge success.

Ichihara went on to receive the university’s 2024 Giles T. Brown Thesis Excellence Award, be recognized as the Alumni Association’s 2024 Outstanding Graduate Student, win first place in the 2024 Titan Grand Slam competition, and be a finalist in the California State University Grand Slam competition, recognized as one of the top 14 students in the CSU system.

“I couldn’t believe myself at that time,” he said. “But Dr. Gleaves and Dr. Llewellyn kept pushing me, and other faculty members also told me, ‘This is excellent. It’s very interesting,’ so I was able to keep pushing myself and receive all those honors.”

From dropping out of high school soccer to developing an award-winning master’s thesis, Ichihara said his journey can be described by the Japanese term “ikigai.” This concept refers to something that gives you a sense of purpose and reason for living, and Ichihara certainly found his at CSUF.

Further explaining “ikigai,” he shared that it combines what you love, what the world needs, what you are good at and what you can make a living out of.

“Soccer may not have been my ‘ikigai,’ but maybe I can provide something more meaningful to the world in the field of research.”

Looking Ahead

Looking to the future, Ichihara plans to return to CSUF in the fall  as a part-time lecturer in the kinesiology department. He is also exploring Ph.D. programs to further his research and eventually become a professor like Gleaves and Llewellyn.

He’s also busy with other opportunities. He was invited to return to Fullerton College as a life coach and teach sports philosophy to the men’s soccer team. He also continues to build his business, AIKOTOBA, a company he founded in 2022 that helps Japanese students learn English using AI technology.

Despite all his accomplishments and goals, Ichihara remains humble and focused on helping other international students who are in the same place he once was. He offers this advice: “Look for opportunities and always say yes to them. To be honest, life is tough as an international student, but if you seek help and reach out, doors will open for you. Seize the opportunity, and you’ll never regret what you’ve done, only what you could have done.”

Ichihara’s full video interview is available to watch on YouTube.

To learn more about opportunities for international students, visit the CSUF International Programs website.

Charis Hill