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Japan Para Report: The Boccia Team’s “Journey to Gold,” as Seen by an Ever-Growing Audience

The 2019 Japan Para Boccia Championships was held at the Shinjuku Cosmic Center on January 19 and 20.

1,341 people—an increase over last year’s 1,029—came to watch the tournament, which was held to train for the group events in boccia. The Canada national team (world ranking No. 8) came to compete in the BC4 pair event, and the Korea national team (world ranking No. 7) came to compete in the BC1-2 team event. In the BC3 class, there were no foreign teams, and the individual matches were held amongst Japan’s top players. Across all classes, however, the matches were high-level and fierce.

The tournament was held under the watchful eye of the many spectators

BC4 Pair Event: Future Boccia Powerhouses Play with Confidence

In this tournament, much of the audience’s attention was focused on the BC4 class, where the Japan team was comprised of three young players—all high school students.

The players were 17-year old Shun Esaki, who was selected in 2017 to be part of the Japan national team “Hinotama Japan,” 16-year old Shunsuke Uchida who was “discovered” in the JAPAN RISING STAR PROJECT, the Japan Sports Agency’s talent discovery project, and 16-year old Rikuto Miyahara, a member of the Fuchu Keyaki no Mori Gakuen of the Tokyo Metropolitan team that won the 3rd National Boccia Invitational Tournament in 2018. All three had gotten up on the winners’ podium at the Japan Boccia Championships in December, and have earned the right to compete on the Japan national team. They are promising players, moving rapidly towards their goal of competing on the Japan national team for the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics.

Esaki (left) and Miyahara discussing strategy

Esaki and Miyahara competed on the first day. Miyahara, competing for the first time as part of the Japan national team, said he was able to “play with a level head” against the Canada team, comprised of players who had competed in the Rio Paralympics. Though they lost badly at 1-9, he said happily, “Canada was so good, and I honestly just feel happy [to have been able to play against them],” showing the strength of his spirit.

The more experienced Esaki built their strategy for the game carefully. During their jack throws*, they played to their strengths—throwing a little to the front and left. Ultimately, however, they ran out of balls earlier than their opponent and, unable to recover, lost multiple points to Canada. After the match, Esaki said, “It’s frustrating to have allowed such a huge point discrepancy,” his eyes clouded with frustration.

* Their turn to throw in the ends. Pair matches are comprised of four ends, and the teams alternate throwing the jack.

On the second day, it was Miyahara and Uchida. Uchida, who had not played the previous day, said, “I was nervous at first, but I was more relaxed compared to yesterday [when I was waiting courtside].” True to his word, his performance on the court exhibited a mental strength that was hard to believe for a first-timer on the national team. He played, smiling occasionally, and enjoying the tactics with Canada.

Though they lost the match 1-8, they were able to win a valuable point against Canada. Miyahara said, frustrated, “There were some really close moments at the end.” Many times throughout the game, however, Uchida and Miyahara were seen discussing strategy, and Uchida said proudly, “It’s good we were able to play with a strategy we both agreed with.”

The two seemed very inspired by the Canada team’s sophisticated strategies. “First we want to improve our accuracy,” they said together, promising better things to come.

BC3 Individual Event: Japan’s Top Players in Fierce Competition

Takahashi, who won 1st place, and assistant Yushiro Taoda (both center), Keisuke Kawamoto, who won 2nd place, and assistant Sachiyo Kawamoto (both left), and Masayuki Arita, who won 3rd place, and assistant Chiho Arita (both right)

In the BC3 class**, the three members of the Japan national team went against each other in individual matches. On the first day, Kazuki Takahashi, who came in 2nd place at the Japan Boccia Championships and was part of the Japan national team for the Rio Paralympics, earned a sweeping victory against Masayuki Arita, who came in 3rd place at the same championships and who had switched over to boccia from wheelchair soccer. Takahashi went on to the finals on the second day, beating Japan champion Keisuke Kawamoto 6-0 to win the crown.

** The BC3 class is for players with significantly limited function in their arms and legs, who cannot throw the ball, and who use a ramp to roll the ball down the court.

Takahashi, who had changed up his training environment after Rio to bulk up his training time, dazzled the audience with his near-perfect performance in the two days of the tournament.

BC3 class Takahashi got the audience’s attention with his highly accurate balls

“I wanted to do my part as the star of BC3 and win this tournament, so I’m relieved to have been able to win.”

Takahashi seemed to have gained confidence, having earned his victory in a setting where his every move was being watched by an audience. Copying strong players overseas, he had learned to use more of the throwing box, and get in strong, efficient balls that got him right to the target. And in this tournament, he seemed to have felt the effects of his new technique.

Following the stellar matches in the BC3 class, Coach Mitsuteru Murakami, who had said the previous year that strengthening Japan’s skills in the BC3 pair event was the most pressing issue for the team, said smiling, “Those were some high-level games.”

BC1-2 Team Event: Victories Borne of Teamwork

Hirose’s yells echoed through the venue

For the BC1-2 class team events, arguably the focus of this tournament, the Japan national team went up against Asian powerhouse Korea.

Japan’s line-up on the first day were Rio 2016 Paralympics silver medal winners Hidetaka Sugimura, Takayuki Hirose, and Yuriko Fujii. Though they lost the first point to Korea in the first end, they made a comeback in the second end. Star of the team, Hirose, went on to make a series of amazingly accurate shots, using the team’s last shot to push their own ball and earn a point, etc., and leading the team to a 9-1 victory.

Nakamura (left), who made some incredible shots despite being called in to play halfway through the match

Japan’s momentum continued on the second day. The Japan team managed to earn three points in the second end, when it was Korea’s turn to throw the jack—thus giving them an advantage—winning the match 8-3. With this second consecutive victory, Japan became champion of the class for this tournament.

There were occasions of great teamwork as well, with Hirose pushing a ball that Sugimura had gotten on the court. “As a team, we can do things we couldn’t do alone. The team event has started to become a really unique experience for us,” said Captain Sugimura, as to the team’s growth and potential.

“This tournament was a promising start to 2019,” said Captain Sugimura

text by TEAM A
photo by X-1

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