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【Boccia】[17th Japan Boccia Championships] World-class athletes displayed high levels of performance!

The 17th Japan Boccia Championships that took place on December 26th and 27th were full of excitement. Seeded athletes or players who had advanced through the preliminary pool rounds in July were divided into 4 international classes (*) and an open class (standing/sitting), and competed to become the champion of their class. The top-ranking athletes of the four preliminary leagues (two for BC1 and BC4) advanced to the final round on the last day of the competition. Some of these athletes included top players aiming to participate in the Rio Paralympics, and tensions flared as heated battles erupted throughout the competition.
*Athletes are classified into one of four classifications according to their level of disability: BC1 (assistant stabilizes or adjusts playing chair, gives ball to player when requested), BC2 (player can maneuver wheelchair with upper limbs), BC3 (assistant provides support and players use assistive device such as a ramp to deliver ball), BC4 (relatively mild disability such as quadriplegia)

Long-standing rivalry settled

Without a doubt, the most attention was drawn to the BC2 class this year.

Sugimura remained calm throughout the final match

Two members of the national boccia team competed head-on in a flurry of sparks. Defending champion was Takayuki Hirose, a two-time Paralympian and Japan's star player who had taken home a medal at the 2015 Boccia World Open in the individual competition. His opponent was Hidetaka Sugimura, London Paralympian and captain of the national boccia team. He was also the defending champion at the 16th Japan Boccia Championships before being beaten by Hirose. The two players have been long-standing rivals, constantly finding themselves face to face in final matches, and this year was no exception. 

Both Hirose and Sugimura had strong feelings towards this match. “I have been working hard to this day, determined to retain my title as defending champion,” said Hirose. Meanwhile, Sugimura was set to take revenge from his rival, who had taken away his chance of becoming a three-time reigning champion last year. “Ever since, my only goal has been to get revenge,” said Sugimura. 

Sugimura maintained points lead and regained the champion title

“I wasn't in the best shape going into the competition,” admitted Sugimura. “I was hoping that I would feel better in time for the final match with Hirose.” After the preliminary pool rounds, Sugimura was seen adjusting the precision of his first throw based on his coach's advice. However, the finals tournament got off to a slippery start for him, with Yuki Umemura, national member at the Incheon 2014 Asian Para Games, gaining a points lead over Sugimura at one point. However, Sugimura fought hard to regain control over the match, and defeated Umemura to advance to the final round. As a change of pace, Sugimura left his usual striped shirt behind and appeared in a bright pink shirt for the final showdown.

Getting to the final round was no easy task for Hirose either. In the quarter-finals, he fell into trouble when he found himself losing against his opponent, Tomohiro Kondo by a large margin. However, determined to win, Hirose unleashed his famous power shots, eked out a draw, and won the tiebreaker to make a comeback win over Kondo. In an interview after the match, Hirose said, “Kondo is a fast-growing player, but I was able to remain persistent and fight to the end. I am convinced that this victory over Kondo will help to shape my future.”

Sugimura (right) came out on top of the hard-fought battle

Then came the final round. After Sugimura won the first end with his accurate shots to the jack, Hirose secured victory for the second end by challenging Sugimura to a long shot match, his known weakness. However, Sugimura quickly regained advantage after winning the third end. The two rivals' screams of emotion echoed through the arena as the fierce battle over the champion title heated up. “I was able to take on each end with a fresh mind, and maintain my focus,” said Sugimura as he recalled the match. In the fourth end, Sugimura tactically threw his ball to make it land against Hirose's jack. His efforts to move the jack and its surrounding balls with powerful shots ended in vain, and Sugimura returned to the throne as the champion with a final score of 3-1.

“I'm very happy that I was able to avenge my defeat from last year. I am particularly pleased because I defeated Hirose, the most skilled player in Japan. His known tactic is to attack his opponent's weak spots, and so he's been challenging me to throw a lot of long shots in the recent competitions. That's why I've been training hard to counterattack this. The winning throw for me was the ball that landed by the jack in the fourth end.”

The captain of the national boccia team grinned as he set his eyes on gaining a spot in the Rio Paralympics.

Journey continues beyond 2020 for many athletes

In the BC4 classification, 24-year-old Kintaro Fujii defended his champion title. His performance was weak during the preliminaries, but he regained stability in the semi-final round and conquered the close match. “My arm tends to bend (when I throw the ball) when I start to get tired, but I was able to control this habit in the final round,” said Fujii.

Many young athletes as well as rookies were amongst this year's participants. Kazutoshi Kitazawa of BC3 was one of them, and this was his first time competing in the championships. “Although I was defeated, I was able to play aggressively and have a close contest with my opponents,” said Kitazawa. The winner of BC3 was Kazuki Takahashi, who decided to take up boccia after Tokyo was announced as the host city of the 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games. “I hope I can keep up my performance,” said Takahashi.

21-year-old Tatsuya Yasui was the defending champion of the Open classification (sitting position). Although he could not retain his title in the end, the rising star did not seem to have lost his positive spirit. “My next challenge is to improve my driving shots and lob shots,” commented Yasui on his own performance. With the announcement of a new BC5 classification being created for future international competitions, the athletes are striving to step up their game in anticipation of the world championships.

Although boccia is a Paralympic-exclusive sport and has no counterpart in the Olympic program, media attention is slowly rising towards the sport as well as the number of spectators. Twelve courts were used at full capacity at this year's championships, and every court had an electrical scoreboard set up for better viewing. This was a first for the Japan championships. The para-sport, known for its feisty competitions, holds much potential for further promotion and development over the next four years until the Tokyo Paralympics.

BC2 winners: Sugimura gold, Hirose silver (right), Umemura bronze (left)

Competitions were held using 12 courts

text by Asuka Senaga
photo by AFLO SPORT,X-1
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