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[Goalball] [2017 Japan Para Championships]

The Japan Women's Goalball Team won the gold at the 2012 London Paralympics, but finished a disappointing fifth at the Rio Paralympics last year. As host country, they hope to regain the gold at the 2020 Tokyo Games. Towards this goal they renewed the team and have been training hard, strengthening their well-known defense as well as offense, because "To win, you have to score."

The 2017 Japan Para Goalball Championships, held August 4–6 at Chiba Port Arena, was a great opportunity to see the results of this training.

Japan wins championship for the first time in three years

This year, Canada (5th in world ranking), Greece (15th in world ranking) and Korea (36th in world ranking) were invited. Japan (6th in world ranking) came out on top in the two preliminary games (round-robin format), then beat Canada 7-4 at the finals held on August 6. This was the first time in three years for Japan to win the Championships, and it was accomplished without a single loss.

Wakasugi pumping her fist

The Japan team kicked off the finals well, with Eiko Kakehata taking the first point early in the game. Haruka Wakasugi replaced Kakehata and added three more points. The first half finished with a score of 7-1. The second half saw a fall in Japan's defense, and Canada gained a penalty throw due to a harsh foul, bringing the score up to 7-4. In the end, Japan followed through with their reputable defense.

Head Coach Kyoichi Ichikawa spoke of the fruits of this event, saying, "We got more points than we ever did in the past, and we are seeing the results of the offense training we have been doing for almost a year since Rio. Another point is that we were able to have more members play in the game, so it was valuable for gaining more experience."

Yuki Tenma, who became captain since April, expressed her hopes for further growth with the words, "Japan's style is to play offense and defense together, all six of us, while fulfilling our individual roles. We plan to improve our teamwork and synergy."

One more step towards a gold medal

Head Coach Ichikawa commands the team

Head Coach Ichikawa has been coaching the Women's team since 2015. When he took on the job, there was only one year to prepare for Rio. That was "not enough time," so they are spending four years to train for the Tokyo Paralympics.

For this first year since the Rio Games, they have been focusing on acquiring a new offense style. Japanese athletes have smaller physiques and cannot compete with international opponents by mere brute. For this reason they have been practicing techniques such as press defense, where they turn a defended ball into a swift attack to break the other side's defense, and broad shots with greater agility. They are improving the precision of such moves.

At this event there were moments where the results of such training showed through, especially in the final game. The first point taken one and a half minutes into the game was an example of press defense. Canada's right-side player Orgeles threw a powerful straight ball, which Japan's center Rie Urata stopped with her legs and passed to Kakehata to her left. Kakehata swiftly shot back a straight ball, and Orgeles did not have time to get into defense position. The ball hit her leg, but spilled behind.

The second point taken soon after was an example of a broad shot. Japan's right-side player Masae Komiya stopped Canadian left-side player Reinke's straight ball at the line, then moved swiftly to the left line and aimed again for Orgeles who had just shown a weak defense. Orgeles tried to stop the ball with her body, but her stance was too upward-facing and the ball bounced right into the net.

This multi-leveled offensive that confuses the other team, and a total score of 51 points in seven games, is unprecedented for the women's Japan team. The head coaches of Greece and Korea both said, "Japan's speed was surprising. We should follow their example." Canadian head coach listed Kakehata (for her strength) and Tenma (for her broad shot) as the most impressive athletes.

Head Coach Ichikawa considered this event as the final conditioning towards the Asia/Pacific Championships to kickoff on August 21 in Thailand. The biggest goal for this season is to get a top ranking at the Asia/Pacific Championships and qualify for the World Championships to be held next June in Sweden. A medal at the World Championships, where the top teams in the world come together to compete, will be a great encouragement in their quest for the 2020 Tokyo gold.

The team has already put on great performances on their European tour in May and June. At the 2017 Malmo Lady and Men Intercup held in Sweden, Japan finished second after Russia among 12 formidable countries. At the International Trakai Goalball Tournament held in Lithuania, where four countries and five teams competed (two Japanese teams), Japan finished second after the United States.

This event proved a continuation of Japan's favorable performance, and the perfect victory is sure to boost the team's confidence towards the Asia/Pacific Championships. Japan is showing solid growth, still in the first year of their four-year plan. That said, there were some mistakes caused by miscommunication and moments of weak defense. There is also room for improvement in the precision and force of throws. We expect the Japan team to improve yearly, building on their strengths and strengthening their weaknesses.

Tenma, new captain after Rio

Kakehata took the first point at the finals.

Generational change is a big theme for all countries

Although the Japan team announced a new team after Rio, in truth there are only two members different since the gold medal team from five years ago. We asked the other teams about this topic.

Second-place winner Canada (5th at the Rio Paralympics) saw a few members retire after Rio. They are currently reorganizing their team with the remaining younger players, and only four of the members attended this event. According to Head Coach Trent, three schools for the blind were consolidated into a single school in Ontario, making it harder to find new members. There are 20 to 25 goalball athletes in the country. They put on regular games, and the representative team is selected from the ten or so high performance-training athletes. Trent said, "I am putting my hopes in the fast growth and receptivity of younger players."

Third place winner Greece has the problem of an "aging" team. At this event, there was one 18-year-old, a 50-year-old captain, one 41-year-old, and three more in their thirties. Head Coach Kessanopoulou said, "It is tough finding young players, but sports can be very meaningful for the lives of younger people with disabilities. Our hope is not only to create a strong representative team, but to promote the sport."

Korea, who finished last, was the youngest team with four out of five members in their teens. They select their players from around ten schools for the blind, but they say it takes time to train them. Captain of the team Soon young has 30 years of experience and also fills the role of coach, playing as well as offering advice on the court. She says she feels "like a mother" to her teammates. Head Coach Lee expressed gratitude in being invited with the words, "The Japan Para Championships provides a lot of games (7) and is a great opportunity for young players to build experience." They plan to attend the Asia/Pacific Championships with a different team. If the young players who attended this time get better, and thus strengthen the Korean team, they may be a force to contend with.

Although the circumstances are different, generational change seems to be a theme for all. All said they hoped to return to Japan in 2020. Who will we see in the City of Chiba, three years from now, among the top teams gathered for the big Games?

Canada was fifth at the Rio Paralympics.

Korea brought young members at this event.

text by Kyoko Hoshino
photo by X-1
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