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Sugimura vs. Hirose: A World-Class BC2 Battle at the Japan Boccia Championships

The 20th Japan Boccia Championships was held at the Fukushima City National Sports Festival Memorial Gymnasium from December 1-2.

This tournament, open only to players who have won their way through their respective preliminaries in Eastern or Western Japan, is divided into Individual (BC1-4) classes as well as the Open Class (Standing/Sitting), with players competing against one another to determine the champion of each class. Given that this particular tournament qualifies the two highest-ranking players in each class for the “Hinotama Japan”* national boccia team in 2019—a solid gateway into the Japan national team for the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics—the players brought their all. Even the staff and other affiliates in the tournament watched the games with a sense of nervousness and excitement.
* “Hinotama Japan”: Nickname for the Japan national boccia team

The play-offs were held under the watchful eyes of the audience and local media

World-Class Boccia Players Show Off Their Skills

Featured on this tournament’s pamphlets and other visual displays were Hidetaka Sugimura (BC2), Takayuki Hirose (BC2), Takumi Nakamura (BC1), Keisuke Kawamoto (BC3), and Shun Esaki (BC4)—five players who have played significant roles in “Hinotama Japan.” All five players went through to and played in the finals, all while managing to act as the face of the tournament itself.

From left to right: Yuriko Fujii, Hidetaka Sugimura, Keisuke Kawamoto, Sachiyo Kawamoto (Kawamoto’s assistant), Shun Esaki

“Until last year things had been kind of chaotic in the Japan Boccia Championships, with nationally endorsed players losing, but this time these players won as they’re supposed to, and it was a relief to see proof that this training program is going well. The top players train every day with the goal of being a player that people want to support, and it’s showing. There were more people who actually came over to watch the games, and the players themselves were able to make good plays, as if to answer to their support. The finals especially was a great game—they didn’t make any mistakes, and just seemed to be drawing on each other for good plays.”

So said a smiling Mitsuteru Murakami, who served as Coach for the Japan national team during the World Boccia Championships and the Indonesia 2018 Asian Para Games. Watching these endorsed players calmly and confidently rack up victories over the challengers that came before them, he seemed to find straightforward joy in their growth.

Shun Esaki (BC4), who played in the Boccia Koshien, marked his first victory at this tournament

A Heated Battle Between Two Boccia Mainstays!

One of the best games in the tournament and very exciting to watch was the BC2 class game between arch rivals—Japan’s two main boccia stars. In the past five years of the Japan Boccia Championships, Hirose and Sugimura had gone back and forth as champions. And in this tournament as well, Sugimura had made it through the play-offs 10-0, 8-0, and Hirose 10-1, 8-0, to battle each other yet again in the finals.

The audience watched with bated breath as the two BC2 stars battled it out

The finals game saw both players going one step forward, then one step back. For instance, Sugimura, who was up first, would throw his ball with great accuracy next to the jack ball, after which Hirose would make a powerful throw that would knock this ball away and get his ball closer to the jack. With the audience watching with bated breath, the first to catch a big break was Sugimura. As the game marched on to the third end, 1-2, Sugimura was able to lock the course down with guard balls to make it difficult for Hirose to throw. Though Hirose tried to work around this with smash-like shots from the air, this end resulted in three points for Sugimura. As Sugimura enjoyed a boost in morale, Hirose forged on, using long balls—a weakness of Sugimura’s—to try to gain an edge in the fourth end. It was not enough, however, with Hirose saying later, “I thought I threw my first ball in a good spot, but there was just the tiniest bit of error.” Sugimura’s fifth ball, on the other hand, managed to stop squarely behind the jack, creating a truly difficult situation for Hirose. “Hirose has power and I thought he could knock out my balls, but I thought if I put a guard behind the jack I could at least prevent myself from losing points,” said Sugimura. It went just as he had predicted, with him saying later, “I would’ve lost if I’d missed that ball.” Relieved, he won the game with a score of 5-3.

“Until now, with my play style, it was hard to win even within Japan. After the World Boccia Championships in August, I decided to focus on not wasting any of the six balls [that are in my possession]. For example, instead of just pushing [the ball], I’m working to make sure the ball that I push ends well [in a good location]. I’ve also practiced intensively for when I make mistakes—how to get the game back in my favor with the next ball. I think this win is the culmination of these efforts I’ve made to get a leg up over the competition.”

The BC2 class winners, full of the usual faces
From left to right: Takayuki Hirose (silver), Shun Sato (bronze), Hidetaka Sugimura (gold)

Sugimura had won his second consecutive victory in this tournament, getting his revenge on Hirose, to whom he had lost in the Asian Para Games. In the press conference after the tournament, he told us, “I’m happy to win two times in a row,” but also that, “That one ball in the fourth end could’ve been better” and “Hirose was playing well, but I wasn’t really happy with my own plays.” Sugimura, looking always towards the world stage, seems understandably hard on himself.

Sugimura, the captain of “Hinotama Japan,” with whom he will aim for a gold medal in the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics, is nowhere close to being done. From here he will aim even higher, continue to grow.

text by Asuka Senaga
photo by X-1

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