[Athletics] "18th National Wheelchair Marathon in Yokosuka – Nissan Cup Oppama Championship"
The "Nissan Cup Oppama Championship" in Oppama, Yokosuka City, is an annual wheelchair marathon event held at the start of the winter. This year marked the 18th championship since its launch in 2000. The event was held December 1–3.
A unique event that allows regular wheelchairs
The three-day Nissan Cup is a series of events: day one features lectures by top athletes for local children and a social wheelchair trial event, day two is a track meet open to the general public, and day three is the road race that starts in front of Oppama Station.
The track meet on the second day, held in the "GRANDRIVE" test track within the Oppama Plant of Nissan Motor Corporation (sponsor), is quite unique. Non-disabled people can compete in all three races (2.5 km, 5 km, 10 km). The 2.5-kilometer race accepts regular wheelchairs, not just sports wheelchairs, so anyone can participate. The event is a gateway into wheelchair athletics, and multiple Paralympic and equivalent athletes have made their start here.
This year around 160 people competed in the three races on December 2. They wheeled hard, fighting against the cold winds. As they crossed the goal line, the participants were full of a sense of accomplishment, with comments like, "That was fun!" and "I will attend again next year."
Support for an athlete's first step
Another thing to note is that sports wheelchairs are given to some of the high-ranking winners of the 2.5-kilometer race. Many recipients of this prize go on to train seriously in athletics and improve significantly, using this event as a gateway to their sport. Sports wheelchairs are expensive, and most athletes start with a borrowed wheelchair. Using a wheelchair that is well-matched to their bodies helps to improve performance.
For many years the awards sponsors have been Wamiles Cosmetics (cosmetics manufacturer) and OX Engineering (wheelchair manufacturer). They spoke of the significance of their sponsorship: "Seeing the children's efforts and smiles, full of hope for the future, gives us great joy." (Wamiles) "It is rewarding to be able to support the first step for potential athletes." (OX Engineering)
Guest runners (from left) Masayuki Higuchi, Kazumi Nakayama, Yoshifumi Nagao and Tomoki Suzuki
Tomoki Suzuki, winner of the 10-kilometer race this day, is one athlete that benefited from this event. He attended the Nissan Cup for the first time in elementary school and won a sports wheelchair. He is now an internationally competing athlete, this year being one of the finalists at the World Para Athletics Championships. Because he was still growing, he only used the sports wheelchair he won for a few years, and it is now on lend at a sports center for the disabled.
Suzuki says, "The Nissan Cup was my starting point. If I had not received a sports wheelchair, I do not know if I would have kept training in athletics. If there are more sports wheelchairs for children available, like at this event, it will help spread the sports. I think this is helping to create a good cycle."
This year, two people won sports wheelchairs. Kenta Sakai (14), attending this event for the first time, has been wheelchair bound from an early age due to a congenital disease. He won the men's junior category 2.5-kilometer race with a time of 12:53. He spoke of his goal: "I have been practicing for a year at my athletics club. My goal is to become a Japanese representative. I would like to become an athlete that competes at an international level."
The other was 22-year-old Rinpei Sasaki, winner of the general 2.5-kilometer men's race with a time of 11:24. He injured his spine in a sports related accident, and is almost ready to end his rehabilitation. This was his first race, but he showed true spirit: "I was also going for overall championship, but I lost the lead in the very end, so that was disappointing. I wanted to get serious about athletics, so I am very happy to win this sports wheelchair. I will continue to train hard."
Yoshifumi Nagao, seven-time Paralympian and wheelchair athletics legend who retired this year, has been involved in the Nissan Cup as both athlete and administrator since his first participation in 2006. "Many kids run their first race full of nerves, then come back the next year with an athlete's countenance. Watching their growth inspires confidence." He looks forward to seeing more Paralympians emerge, following in his footsteps.
The event as an encouragement in daily life
The Nissan Cup is a wonderful opportunity to enjoy wheelchair racing and social exchange with others. Members of wheelchair basketball and tennis teams sometimes attend with their teammates, bringing their own sports wheelchairs. Because it is open to non-disabled people, many parents have fun "racing" with their wheelchair bound children. This versatility is key to the event's popularity. People cite different reasons for attending each year: "It is a great way to record the results of the year's training. It is my yearly goal," or "Everyone is so fast and I can hardly keep up, but it is fun to compete with top athletes, even for just a moment."
Yoshitaka Mochida (53) became wheelchair bound five years ago after a work-related accident. This was his third year to attend the event. He said brightly, "This year little kids beat me, and my ranking falls every year. But I look forward to this event every year, and it encourages me in my daily life."
A group of friends: (from left) Miss Sakashita, Miss Fukuda, Miss Katsuta and Miss Yoshida
Fourth-year elementary school students Himari Sakashita and Mone Fukuda, and second-year elementary school students Rinka Katsuta and Kisa Yoshida, are a group of four friends from a special needs school in Tokyo. They decided to attend after one of their friends attended last year and told them how fun it was. To prepare, they practiced every morning in the schoolyard. When interviewed, they were full of a sense of accomplishment: "I was nervous, but I had fun," "I would like to run a longer race someday." Their families, watching from the sidelines, commented with deep emotion, "I thought 2.5 kilometers would be too long, but I am glad I let her go for it," "It was a wonderful experience for her to race with older non-disabled people."
Mr. Sakurai, supported by cheers
The person who attracted the most attention this year was perhaps Ayato Sakurai, second-year student at a special needs school and the final runner in the race. In his last 500 meters, an "Ayato!" cheer naturally erupted from the crowd. He persevered until the very end, finishing the goal alongside his teacher, Satoshi Miura. He took it one push at a time and ran 2.5 kilometers in almost two hours. "I had a lot of fun. My goal was to complete the race, and the crowd's cheers became my fuel."
He suffers from a progressive disease that causes gradual stiffness in the muscles, but kept practicing for this race, which was his dream to attend. The crowd gave him a loud applause as he smiled brightly with an expression of fulfillment at completing the race.
The Nissan Cup's significance is manifold, including social exchange with people with disabilities, promoting an understanding of disabilities, and nurturing beginner and junior class athletes. It is now a large part of the community, considered one of the top four events of Oppama.
1Kazumi Nakayama is a Paralympian that has attended the event for ten years straight. This year, as usual, she also attended the social exchange on the day before. She says, "It is a valuable event that also offers the opportunity to deepen understanding towards wheelchairs."
The event has continued successfully with support from Nissan Motor Corporation employees and the passionate community, including volunteering university students. According to Takashi Suga, manager of the General Affairs Department of Nissan Motor Corporation Oppama Plant, the event has helped shift awareness in the people involved: "We are encouraged by the smiles of participants. Many of our employees learned to support the Paralympics after helping in the administration of the event."
Wheelchair racing events involve many difficulties, such as traffic control and ensuring safe courses, leading to a downward trend in the frequency of events. The Nissan Cup, however, is one that contributes to both spreading the sport and raising the bar for athletes. We hope this valuable opportunity will continue to be offered.
text&photos by Kyoko Hoshino