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Anri Sakurai Wins Japan’s Only Medal—Bronze—in the 2018 IWAS Wheelchair Fencing World Cup Kyoto

The 2018 IWAS Wheelchair Fencing World Cup Kyoto was held from December 13-16 at Prince Hall in Grand Prince Hotel Kyoto. In wheelchair fencing, the rankings that determine who is able to compete in the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics are based on the number of points won in World Cups between November 2018 and a designated tournament in 2020. As such, this tournament attracted all of the world’s best fencers.

The venue was a hall at the Grand Prince Hotel Kyoto

12 Japanese fencers competed in the tournament. Though many struggled in the face of the European fencers, star Anri Sakurai rose above the fray to win Japan its only medal of the tournament—a bronze in the foil (Women’s Category B) event.

Anri Sakurai Leaves Her Mark on the World

Fencers in the foil event can only win points by getting a stab on the opponent’s torso. Shintaro Kano (Men’s Category A/trunk control) finished in 21st place, while Michinobu Fujita (Men’s Category B/impaired trunk control) made it to the last 16 before suffering a loss to Maxime Valet (France). Meanwhile, Sakurai, who had gone to train in London after the 2018 Indonesia Asian Para Games in October, made it from the preliminaries to the finals tournament in third place, without a single loss. She even finished ahead of medal contender Ellen Geddes (U.S.), winning 15-13 after a very close battle, and despite falling behind in the early stages of the match.

This World Cup was the first to be held in Japan. Sakurai, however, had struggled against an opponent she normally would have been able to beat with ease.
She seemed to be taking it in stride, however. “There was a lot of attention on this tournament and it was nice to have so many people watching these world-class matches, but I also felt a kind of nervousness here that I don’t feel in tournaments overseas. But I think this was a really good experience for me in terms of preparing for the Tokyo Paralympics,” she said.

Anri Sakurai (right), who won a bronze medal in the foil event

In the semi-finals that followed, Sakurai went head-to-head against Beatrice Vio (Italy), gold medalist in the foil (Women’s Category B) event at the Rio Paralympics. The only quadruple amputee in the tournament, her fencing is defined by her speed. She is also a popular fencer in fencing powerhouse Italy, and is featured in commercials on Japanese TV, meaning that the audience was fixed on their match as soon as the two appeared on the center court.

How far would Sakurai be able to go against Vio, ranked No. 1 in the world? Indeed, Sakurai herself had gone into the match focusing less on winning and more on seeing how many points she could win, knowing her skills would not be enough to beat Vio.

Her opponent’s attacks were quick, and Sakurai knew she wouldn’t be able to fight back with speed alone. Before the tournament, she had worked with a Polish coach, left-handed like Vio, and focused on establishing a defense against Vio’s attacks, as well as an offense that could be built on top of it.

“Since she doesn’t have arms, it gets hard for her to support her torso when the matches go on longer. So our strategy was to keep the match going for longer, then attack when she began to show weakness.”

Though Vio racked up points in the early stages of the match, gradually Sakurai’s plan came to fruition, and she began closing the gap to her opponent. Towards the end, however, a malfunction in the electronic scoreboard brought everything to a pause. When the match resumed, however, Vio had changed up her play style, while Sakurai—in this very important point in the match—faltered, later saying, “I think I may have been a little shocked, to be honest, that I’d had such a close match with her. So I started feeling some hesitation in what I was doing, where I was aiming.” She went on to lose 12-15.
She looked back on the match with a level head, saying, “I just couldn’t get the points. I see now that my accuracy in getting points is something I need to work on.” There was a bit of regret in her tone, however. “There’s no point in playing well if I can’t win. I’m upset that I lost, especially because I was able to get so close…”

It was more than enough, however, for Vio—the Rio Paralympics gold medalist—to recognize Sakurai as an opponent to be wary of in the future.

The next day, Sakurai went for a medal in the epee event, but lost to powerhouse fencer Viktoria Boykova (Russia) in the quarter-finals, and was eliminated.

“My struggle right now—and something I experienced first-hand in this tournament—is my inability to break past the quarter-finals. The world’s best are still so much better than I am. The fencers in Russia and other countries train an enormous amount, an unbelievable amount, compared to me. What I have to do is to close this gap in terms of our levels of experience.”

Sakurai knows that the path to victory is in competing overseas, going out into the world. After the tournament, and with the support of her company, she flew immediately back to London for even more training.

Beatrice Vio Comes in Second Place in a Surprising Upset

After beating Sakurai, Beatrice Vio went on to the finals of the foil event. In this match, which attracted significant attention, she went head-to-head in an intense battle against Ludmila Vasileva (Russia)—ranked No. 4 in the preliminaries—and lost.

She had used all her best techniques, and yet towards the end of the game Vasileva had caught up to her, bested her. The audience was stunned. Vio, however, was smiling as she took off her mask.

“I had some things I wanted to try during my matches, and I tried those things, and as a result I lost. I do think I could’ve won if I’d done it like I used to… But I’d always wanted to try new things, just to prepare for the future as well. I focused so hard on that one element, and lost. I’m obviously not happy to have lost, but there’s a part of me that feels—because of that—that it was kind of inevitable.”

She drives herself to new challenges because she dreams of even greater heights. At the Tokyo Paralympics, Vio is aiming not only for an individual gold medal, but also for a group one.

“I should be able to do more of what I want to do in the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics, and I should be able to show everyone that as well.”

The queen of wheelchair fencing. Her eyes gleamed with confidence.

Popular wheelchair fencer Vio, who gathered much of the audience’s attention

Using World Cup Kyoto as a Stepping Stone

In the epee event, fencers can win points by getting a stab anywhere on the opponent’s upper body. Kiyoharu Nakagawa (Men’s Category A), a strengthening designated player, 180cm tall, who uses his height to his advantage as he “sways” his torso and unleashes flurries of quick-paced attacks, made it to the last 64.

In the sabre event, fencers can win points by getting a stab or a slash anywhere on the opponent’s upper body. Ryuji Onda (Men’s Category B), only in his fourth season since he started wheelchair fencing, came in 10th. Naoki Yasu (Men’s Category A), who competes in the same event, fell to 28th place, and expressed the struggle he has felt about his performance. “I’m not really sure what I’m supposed to be doing right now,” he said.

Michinobu Fujita, who came in 14th in the foil event and 19th in the epee event, said calmly, “This is just my level of skill at the moment”

Naoki Yasu was frustrated at his own performance

“I can’t get past the last 16,” said Shintaro Kano

This tournament saw the coming together of 178 fencers from 27 countries and regions, all battling it out for a chance at the Tokyo Paralympics. These fencers’ journeys have just begun. For Japan, however, the hosting of this tournament—the first international wheelchair fencing tournament in the country—was an incredible first step towards learning the operation and volunteer management needed for 2020.

“We’re just happy to have been able to host this tournament,” said Shinichi Komatsu, Chairman of the Japan Wheelchair Fencing Association. He continued, expressing the thought behind the hosting of the tournament. “We really want to use this as an opportunity to get more people interested in wheelchair fencing.”

text by Asuka Senaga
photo by X-1

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