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Yoshihiro Nitta Wins First Gold in Eight Years in Cross-Country Skiing / PyeongChang Paralympics

After snatching the gold medal for the first time in eight years, Yoshihiro Nitta let out a huge roar of joy.

On March 17, Yoshihiro Nitta (men's standing, LW8) won the gold medal in the Cross-Country Skiing Middle (10 km) Classic event. This was his second PyeongChang medal—the first was a silver for the Sprint event held on the 14th. It was also his third gold medal personally, after two golds at the 2010 Vancouver Paralympics.

A grand performance, after shifting from a one-year to four-year training program. © Getty Images Sport

A come-from-behind victory

"I am definitely better than I was four years ago or eight years ago. If I can perform to my abilities, I can reach the top." Nitta understands that numerous top contenders gather to the Paralympics after conditioning themselves to be at their very best. He stood at the starting line fully prepared and emotionally ready.

For this race, the competitors did three laps of a 3.4-kilometer course. Nitta began vigorously and fell at the very beginning where the snow quality tends to worsen. He kept his spirits up, however, telling himself, "It is a 10-kilometer race so I can make it up." He sprinted up the uphill slopes, which is his strong point. "Instead of putting all my effort into the start, like I usually do, I focused on maintaining my speed until the very last lap."

At the last lap he was in third place. He stayed calm, thinking, "My opportunity will come." After Sochi, Nitta changed his skiing form to a more upright posture in order to more effectively use his cardiopulmonary functions on flat areas as well as uphill portions. His stronger lower body muscles helped him ski tenaciously on the firm snow.

From the sidelines, his coach yelled to him, "You are gaining on Grygorii!" and Nitta learned he was just 11 seconds behind his Ukrainian rival.

Nitta put his all into the last lap. "Even if my arms tore, or my legs tore, or my heart collapsed, I would regret it if I did not put in my best effort."

Once he realized he was two seconds ahead at the last 1.5-kilometer point, he squeezed out his last strength. After the last bend, he could hear the crowd. Nitta finished at 24:06.08 and won the gold.

A gold medal won after a full-effort race © Getty Images Sport

The unexpected reason for his tears

Nitta cried a little after finishing. He explained the reason for his tears: "This was the last individual event for Ilkka (Ilkka Tuomisto, Finland), who has been my rival for many years. I wanted to stand on the medal podium with him. Because that did not happen I was a little sad, and I got a little emotional thinking about the people I have competed with who are retiring. There were good times and bad times, and we competed in friendly rivalry throughout it all." His voice trembled slightly as he spoke.

At the 2006 Torino Games, Tuomisto finished fourth and Nitta fifth. At Vancouver in 2010, Nitta won gold and Tuomisto won bronze. At the 2014 Sochi Games, Tuomisto won silver and Nitta finished fourth. Tuomisto was a constant presence throughout Nitta's skiing career.

Nitta won silver and Tuomisto (far right) won bronze in the Sprint Classic event held earlier. © Getty Images Sport

Tuomisto was ahead of Nitta at one point, but in the end finished fifth. Nitta waited at the finish line to tell him, "Cheers for a great long career."

In the end, Nitta shed tears for his rival, three years younger than himself, rather than for his gold medal. After spending a quarter century on cross-country skiing and attending six Paralympic Games, it seems that Nitta gained something more than a gold medal.

"I want to put this gold medal around the necks of my family who have supported me." © Getty Images Sport

When asked by a reporter the difference between this gold medal and the ones he got eight years ago, Nitta said, "At Vancouver I wanted the gold and went after it, but this time it seems like a bonus gift. The most important thing was to do my best. I am happy that I was prepared and that I was able to put my all into it." He finished with a full, bright smile.

text by Asuka Senaga
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