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What the Rising Stars in Para Athletics and Wheelchair Fencing Learned at the Asian Para Games

The Indonesia 2018 Asian Para Games, the last major multi-sport tournament before the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games, was held for 8 days starting October 6. 304 Japanese para-athletes competed in 17 events. Japan won a total of 198 medals, with 45 golds, and gained definite momentum towards the Tokyo Paralympics.

Tomoki Sato (Para Athletics) Puts Words to Action and Wins Another Two Gold Medals

One para-athlete that put words to action was Tomoki Sato (T52/wheelchair) of para athletics. He had won gold in the 400m and 1500m events at the 2017 World Para Athletics Championships, and set new world records for both events in July. Sato, right on the path to a gold medal at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games, had said before the tournament that he wanted overwhelming victories and two gold medals in the 400m and 800m events he was to compete in.

Tomoki Sato, who won gold in two events ©X-1

Sato’s desire for an overwhelming victory was based on a sense of competition with his other world-class rivals, including Raymond Martin (U.S.), who he had lost to previously in the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games. And just as he had declared, he won the gold in his first event, the 800m, and went on to win another in the 400m—his strongest event—while leaving everyone else in the dust. Breathing hard after the race, he reveled in joy at his second gold medal, perhaps relieved to have beaten the pressure of it all, even if his time may not have been exciting as he would have liked.

Sato’s strength is usually in the mid-race to the end of the race. However, in this particular tournament in Asia, he had wanted to show himself differently, getting out in front of the pack as early as possible in order to gain momentum towards the World Para Athletics Championships to be held next year. And indeed, the improvements he has made to his run at the start of the race—driving forward, but making sure not to work too hard—have led to his new record times. What with all this improvement, he seemed disappointed that there had only been a three-second difference between him and second-place Tomoya Ito. “It could’ve been more,” he said.

Sato had struggled with the tartan track—so soft that wheelchairs feel a bit like they are sinking into the track—and ended with a time of 1 minute 1.49 seconds, a far cry from his world record of 55.13 seconds. “I need to learn how to get under one minute even on these softer tracks… I have so much still to learn. But that’s a good thing, as it means I still have room to grow too,” he said, grinning.

New world records and gold medals at the Tokyo Paralympics. That is Sato’s ultimate goal, and what he is currently driving towards.

Anri Sakurai (Wheelchair Fencing) Wins Bittersweet Bronze Medals

In this tournament, the stadiums for the para athletics events, like where Sato won his gold medal, were concentrated in the GBK area of Jakarta. In the wheelchair fencing venue, located a little ways away from this main area, women’s fencing star Anri Sakurai of Japan made her way through the preliminaries, and found herself standing on one side of the piste in the Foil (Category B) event.

To get to the finals, she had to beat Saysunee Jana of Thailand, a powerful fencer. Sakurai had set as her goal before the tournament a battle in the finals with Rio Paralympics silver medalist Jingjing Zhou (China)—she couldn’t lose here. Her opponent, however, who she had bested 5-3 in the preliminaries, was a very experienced fencer with a long career. The momentum was not with Sakurai from the start, and after she failed to connect her straight thrusts—her strength—she lost multiple consecutive points to Jana, and lost 10-15.

Arriving at the media mixed zone, Sakurai looked as if she were about to burst into tears.

“Everything I was trying to do, she saw through. Every time I went in, she would come back with an easy defense… I was losing points in the exact same way each time, and as she got more and more points, I panicked and no matter how much I tried, I couldn’t keep calm enough to come up with a new strategy.”

Anri Sakurai competing in her first international tournament in a year

She went on to win another two bronze medals in the Epee and Sabre events that followed. “I’m not happy at all,” she said, unable to hide her disappointment, though she smiled as she received her medals at the medal ceremony. This tournament, however, did make clear the issues that she would have to work on in the future.

“The fencers from Thailand and [fencing powerhouse] Europe are all better built than I am and have a longer reach. Because of that, I can’t just go all-out offense. It’s important that I use feints and get them to move forward, and get used to thinking one, two, or even three steps ahead of whatever I’m doing. This is something I need to work on immediately if I want to be chosen for the Tokyo Paralympics.”

This particular Asian Para Games had actually been Sakurai’s first international tournament in a year. She had had to take a six-month break from wheelchair fencing due to a repeat surgery for a spinal chord infection, and had only returned to the sport in May. During her six months away, however, she hadn’t wasted any time, spending her days researching the quirks of her world-class competitors, and more.

“I mean, that was all I could do, so… When I think about how long I spent in the hospital, it’s actually a miracle I was even able to return to this tournament. But if I’m going to compete, I want to win.”

Behind these words is an iron will and a fighting spirit, which will likely drive her to be even stronger in the future.

Yuki Yamauchi (Shooting Para Sport), Eliminated in the Preliminaries, to Use This Experience to Fuel His Drive Towards Tokyo

Using the disappointment in this tournament as fuel for the future—it wasn’t just Sakurai who told us this. For Yuki Yamauchi of shooting para sport, who fulfilled the Tokyo Paralympics MQS (minimum number of points required to compete) for his sport in May at the World Shooting Para Sports Championship (Korea), this tournament was also a turning point, one where he felt keenly the challenges of competing at a world-class level.

Yuki Yamauchi, who has a paralyzed right hand, competed in the 10m Men’s Air Pistol event ©X-1

It was the preliminaries for the 10m Men’s Air Pistol (SH1) event. Perhaps he had been overwhelmed by that special kind of anxiety that only seems to exist at international multi-sport tournaments. Whatever it was, Yamauchi entered the venue that day with an uncertainty that had plagued him since the previous day.

“Before the match, I couldn’t stop watching the really good players from India and China and thinking, ‘maybe I should be doing this or that,’ and so I ended up going into the match feeling confused and a little panicked. Of course it’s important to observe stronger players, see what they do well, and incorporate that, but it’s not something you want to do before a match. I learned in this year’s Asian Para Games that it’s important in major tournaments to keep calm no matter what, and just prepare in the way that I’ve been trained to do.”

While Yamauchi did recover in the latter half of the match, his score of 89.0 points in the first round was too much to overcome, and he ended up in 16th place. Since he was outside the top eight, he was unable to advance to the finals.

“I haven’t felt this level of soul-sucking disappointment since I started shooting. But I know that with the depth of this feeling, I’ll absolutely be able to turn it into momentum for my next match. For the latter half of the match, I went through my training notes and got over it, and was able to shoot confidently, the way I always have, even after this failure. The fact that I was able to take some time away from shooting and recover mentally, was sign enough that I’m able to manage my time differently from how I did in the world championship. Time management was always something I struggled with, so I’m thinking that’s a good thing…”

It has only been two years since Yamauchi began competing in international tournaments. The experiences he had and the disappointment he faced at the Asian Para Games will 100% serve as fuel for his growth in the future.

What with this tournament being the “turning point” international multi-sport tournament before the Tokyo Paralympic Games, there were quite a few athletes who said they had gained valuable experiences and insight towards the biggest of stages looming two years ahead. Though interest in para-sports tends to fade following a major tournament, now is actually the time when competition will heat up, with para-athletes battling each other for the right to compete in the Tokyo Paralympics. Don’t miss the rising stars in each para-sport as they use this tournament as a jumping block for even greater challenges ahead.

text by Asuka Senaga

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