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The Joys and Struggles of Yukinobu Ike, Who Led Japan Wheelchair Rugby to a World Championship Title

In August, Japan beat Australia—Rio Paralympics gold medalists—in the Wheelchair Rugby World Championships. Yukinobu Ike, captain of the Japan national wheelchair rugby team had led the team both on and off the court since 2014, and was instrumental in that victory. In the words of Kevin Orr, head coach of the Japan national team, Ike is a “gentle” captain. In this interview, we asked Ike about the struggle hidden behind his plucky smile, and about his passion for wheelchair rugby.

Driving Japan Towards Its First World Championship Title, with Nerves of Steel

“We’ve made good on our word with this gold medal.” His words, spoken immediately after their victory, seemed full of confidence. It was August 2018, at the Wheelchair Rugby World Championships in Sydney, Australia. Yukinobu Ike, captain of the Japan national wheelchair rugby team, lifted the championship trophy high in the air, in the center of his circle of teammates.

Yukinobu Ike (hereafter, “Ike”): I mean, it was the best feeling. But it took a little while after that to really “get” that we had won. Until now, Japan had always been so close, yet so far from a gold medal. We’d felt that over and over again, so when we finally got the gold medal, a part of me couldn’t believe that it was actually happening. Our win over Australia had been so close, but as a team, I think we have the potential to win even better. One of our strengths is that we’re still “incomplete,” that we still have room to grow. We want to pursue even greater heights and win that gold medal again, as we work towards 2020.

Ike showing off his gold medal at the “Towards 2020: Winning the Wheelchair Rugby World Championships and Challenging Himself to the U.S. League” media-directed panel event hosted by his company in late October

The finals match against Australia was a back-and-forth game with no room for error. After their victory, HC Orr praised Ike as the “hidden MVP” of the game. Ike, showing his leadership off the court as well, had decided at the last-minute to bring his teammates around him before the semi-finals against the U.S., to get them amped up for the match.

Ike: We’d had a loss against Australia in the preliminaries, and were about to go into the semi-finals with the U.S.—another strong team—and I just felt that we weren’t in the right frame of mind going into the match. So I brought in just the 12 players on the team, and had a meeting. I told them, “We’re about to go into battle. So what do we do? The only thing we can do is bring our best game to the court.” Then, I asked each of the players to bring up one great play the team was capable of when we’re in our zone, and made sure each of them knew that that’s what we needed to bring to the upcoming match. All the team members were really eager to voice our strengths. They just spoke up one after another, in a rhythm, and soon we had all 12 examples at the ready.

“We won because we prepared well,” said all the long-time team members after Japan’s decisive victory against the U.S. Meanwhile, Ike had turned his attention specifically to the younger, newer members, in a bid to strengthen the team’s bond before the finals.

Ike: For instance, I asked Katsuya Hashimoto, the youngest member of the team, and a player who probably wasn’t going to be able to play in the match, to give the final address in the meeting, so that he’d feel like he was fighting the fight with the rest of us. I also asked Vice Captain Masayuki Haga to speak to everyone individually before the match to make sure they were amped up for the match. I think it’s important that every member of the team speaks in a meeting before a match, as it allows us to concentrate better and play better.

Ike looking back on the Wheelchair Rugby World Championships, where Japan won gold

To Be a Captain That Remains True to Himself, and Unites the Team’s Unique Cast of Characters

Nowadays, Ike is the absolute leader of the team, well-trusted by newer and older members alike. But this wasn’t always the case. In fact, when former HC Koichi Ogino asked him to be captain in 2014, Ike had been very unsure whether he could fulfill the role, particularly seeing as how he had less experience than his teammates, at only 2 years into the sport.

Ike: I’d actually been captain of my middle school basketball team, and I remember at the time I wasn’t able to bring the team together very well. That experience sort of traumatized me, and I wasn’t even that confident about my skills in wheelchair rugby, and I just remember wanting to say no. But then I recalled my motto, “Don’t ever run away from anything,” and I realized being captain was an opportunity for me to get over my past failure, and this other, more confident part of me pushed me to just try it.

Another factor in me taking on the role was that there were two captains at the time, and I’d be co-captain with Takeshi Shoji. But even now, I sometimes worry, “Am I really the best man for this job?” But then there are also times where I think I’m pretty good at this. There’s a wide range of ages right now in the Japan national team, as well as players that have strong personalities, and big egos. So I really want to play the role of bringing everyone together, and to create a team where each player’s strengths can be turned into positives for the team as a whole.

The team won a bronze medal at the Rio Paralympics ©X-1

The Ideal Captain, as Seen by Ike

Ike: There’s a lot of pressure when you’re a captain, and a lot of things you have to struggle through. But what I don’t want is the team seeing me confused, indecisive. And of course, there’s my pride too. There are times when I have to have uncomfortable conversations with the players, or say things that I know will get me disliked. But to make the team stronger, I think we should challenge ourselves to change as much as possible.
I mean, if we try something new and it doesn’t work out, and the team is unhappy with me, I’ll just lose my position as captain. If that’s what the team wants, then that’s what the team needs, and I’d hand over my position tomorrow if there was someone the team thought would be a better captain than me.

Of course, the ideal captain would be charismatic and would just magically come up with amazing ideas that other players wouldn’t even think of. But it’s impossible for me to emulate some other captain. So I just want to do what I can as best as I can, and work to make us a better team.

Ike discussing the Japan national wheelchair rugby team, for which he serves as captain

When he was 19, Ike was involved in a car accident that impaired the use of his limbs. He went on to discover wheelchair basketball and become a candidate for the Japan national team in the London 2012 Paralympics, but ended up not being selected. “There were just so many obstacles that seemed so insurmountable, no matter how hard I tried,” he said. At 32 years old, he switched to wheelchair rugby, and the obstacles that had been there before seemed to melt away before his eyes. From there, he just drove forward until he got to the top. Currently, he is 38 years old, and will try playing in the U.S. league—a wheelchair rugby battleground—for the first time this 2018-19 season.

Ike: Though of course, the main goal of me playing in the U.S. league is to become a better player, it’s also just to heighten the level of wheelchair rugby in general, making it something more competitive, and popular in society. So my goal is to hone my skills on the U.S. battleground, and come back to Japan a more convincing spokesperson, with more to say about how great the sport is. And at the Tokyo Paralympics, I want the team to win a gold medal in front of an audience that didn’t have to be recruited from somewhere—an audience that loves the sport and came all the way to the stadium just to cheer us on. Do that, and you’re in for some passionate plays. Like the last song of a concert, you’ll be crying with us at the end of it.

Refuse to run away, and doors will always open for you. With this in mind, Yukinobu Ike, captain of the Japan national wheelchair rugby team, drives forward, further and further every day, resilient in his beliefs.

text by Asuka Senaga
photo by Kazuyuki Ogawa

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