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【Wheelchair Fencing】Able-bodied and disabled fencers unite! [Wheelchair Fencing Open Championships]

In many ways, the Wheelchair Fencing Open Championships held at the Komazawa Gymnasium (Setagaya, Tokyo) on December 26th demonstrated the various issues and possibilities faced by many para-sports today.

This year's championship was a revolutionary event for the Japan Wheelchair Fencing Association, because it was the first time that their event was integrated with the All Japan Fencing Championships hosted by the Japan Fencing Federation.

As the able-bodied fencers threw sparks in heated matches across the stadium, the wheelchair fencers were given Piste 1, where fixing plates had already been set up to fasten wheelchairs to the floor. Wheelchair fencers used this piste for their matches as well as warm-ups. Efforts to promote wheelchair fencing were seen in other ways as well. Shortly before the first match began, an announcement was made over the P.A. to welcome athletes and spectators to gather around piste 1, and also gave a brief explanation of the rules of wheelchair fencing.

Multi-sport athletes with eyes set on Tokyo 2020

Tensions grew as the fencers fought hard

This year's wheelchair fencing championships only consisted of the men's foil (points are counted by touches to the torso with the tip only). After a fierce tug-of-war between Naoki Yasu and Michinobu Fujita in the final round, Yasu sealed his first-time victory, 15-11. “I feel relieved,” said Yasu after the match. Before switching to fencing in March, Yasu was a wheelchair basketball player for 20 years, and even played in an overseas club team for a period of time. However, in July 2014, he decided to turn over a new leaf and retreat from basketball to find a new sport in which he can compete at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games. After trying out various para-sports, he finally chose fencing as his new battle ground.

“My goal is pure and simple: to give good results at the 2020 Paralympics. Therefore, I was hoping that today's competition will become an opportunity for me to recognize my strengths and weaknesses to further improve my performance,” said Yasu, as he recalled the day's events. Because the overall number of para-athletes is still very low, much hope is placed on active para-athletes to “switch to another sport” as part of the effort to reinforce the weaker para-sports towards 2020. Yasu is clearly a leading pioneer in this initiative.

The final wheelchair-fencing match was held in the same manner as able-bodied fencing: atop the special, elevated piste in the center of the stage. Music. Lights. Then, Yasu and Fujita's names echoed through the gymnasium. “I felt nervous and excited at the same time,” said Yasu.

Everyone's gaze was on the two finalists as the match kicked off. The first fencer to win 15 points in 3 minutes is the winner. Although Yasu was the first to score, Fujita quickly started leading the game, 5-4. However, Yasu was not one to be easily beaten. When the score reached 9-7, he began to make a terrific counterattack and leveled the score, 9-9. After that, he continued to extend the points lead over Fujita. Even an interruption for a video replay at 14-11 was not enough to break his concentration, and Yasu finally took the win at 15-11.

Yasu attracting attention as a wheelchair-basketballer-turned-fencer

“Since I suffered a devastating defeat of 1-5 against Fujita in the preliminary pool play, I decided to go back to the basics and concentrate on ‘relaxing my muscles and thrusting straight'. Since I'm still new at this sport, I don't have very many skills anyway. When Fujita took the lead in the final round, I told myself to just keep thrusting and let fate decide the outcome of the match,” said Yasu. His victory over Fujita was a result of his years of experience as an athlete, and defiance as a rookie fencer.

What the integrated championships meant

“Finally, my dream of having both able-bodied and wheelchair fencing competitions at the same event came true. This integrated event was a valuable experience for the wheelchair fencers and the association members as we prepare for the 2020 Games,” said Shinichi Komatsu of the Japan Wheelchair Fencing Association. “Many able-bodied fencers showed an interest in competing in a wheelchair, which was also encouraging. I hope to continue to raise awareness on the sport and gain more understanding from able-bodied fencers,” he commented with determination.

The first Japan wheelchair fencing championships were held in 1998, and even fencers from foreign countries were crossing the ocean to compete at one point. However, the number of participants continued to decline year after year, until the event was finally discontinued in 2003. Then, an opportunity arose for wheelchair fencing to spring back to life: Tokyo was chosen as the host of the 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games. After 12 years of silence, the para-sport event was 'revived', and the latest integrated All Japan Fencing Championships were held under the encouragement of many stakeholders.

Although there are normally two divisions of competition based on disability classification at a wheelchair fencing championship, since only four male wheelchair fencers were participating, this year's championship was held exceptionally as an open tournament. “I hope to recruit more participants next year so that the competition will have two divisions,” said Komatsu.

“I am glad that we had an opportunity to show able-bodied fencers and staff how to support wheelchair fencers. I think it's a great step forward towards the 2020 Games,” said Koji Emura. He is the coach of the national fencing team, and has a long history with Komatsu. “I think the two fencing associations were able to unite, and share their thoughts on the challenges to come,” he said.

4 wheelchair fencers participated in the open tournament

Wheelchair fencing seemed to be well received by fans at the championships. A highschool student who belongs to his school's fencing team said, “I had never heard of wheelchair fencing until today. I was surprised to see the wheelchairs fastened to the floor. The match was interesting because the fencers were straining their bodies to thrust while avoiding their opponent's attacks.” Another male spectator who had experience in fencing said, “It was the first time that I saw a wheelchair fencing match live. Not being able to use your legs must require higher sword skills. It must also be tiring. I was impressed today. I hope more people will become interested in wheelchair fencing, and the number of fencers will increase. I think integrating wheelchair fencing with able-bodied fencing is a great initiative, and to treat it like a category of fencing rather than a separate sport. I hope this trend continues.”

Only 20 wheelchair fencers in Japan

However, the current number of wheelchair fencers in Japan is said to be merely 20. The Japan Wheelchair Fencing Association faces two major challenges: ‘promote' the sport and recruit more fencers, and ‘reinforce' the association to increase the chances of winning a medal at the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics.

Yasu gave the following comment from an athlete's point of view. “I hope to contribute as much as I can to promote wheelchair fencing in the limited time that we have left until the 2020 Paralympics. As I'm sure the present wheelchair fencers are determined to put on a good performance at the Tokyo Games as I am, I hope the association will invest in reinforcements as much as promotion and new recruitment.” However, Yasu knows all too well the current tight situation of the association. Therefore, he has already made plans to leave the country and seek training overseas from next year. “There are only four years left until the Tokyo Paralympics, and I'm worried that things will become too late if I wait for reinforcements to the Japanese wheelchair fencing association. Therefore, I look forward to finding rivals outside of Japan whom I can train and grow with, as well as a reliable coach,” said Yasu.

Although the integrated able-bodied and wheelchair fencing competition was indeed a big step forward, more importantly, we must think of how to tackle the challenges that have become clear from this event.

text by Kyoko Hoshino
photo by X-1

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