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Japan Para Report: Japan National Women’s Goalball Team Makes Strides Towards an Iron-Clad Defense

The Japan national women’s team for goalball—a parasport for those with visual impairment—is working their way steadily towards the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics.

The 2019 Japan Para Goalball Championships, an international face-off with three powerhouse overseas teams, was held from February 1-3 at the Chiba Port Arena.

Japan was to go against Brazil (ranked No. 1 in the world), Turkey (gold medalists at the Rio Paralympics), and the U.S. (bronze medalists at the Rio Paralympics). For Japan to advance to the finals, they needed to establish a firm line of defense, and guard against some of the world’s highest-level offensive attacks.

Japan was ready, however, having rebuilt its entire defense after the Goalball World Championships last year. After two sets of round-robin matches, they had two wins, two losses, and two ties, putting them in second place and advancing them to the finals, where they would play Turkey—a team that had not lost a single match in the preliminaries.

Japan’s strength—defensive teamwork—was on display at the tournament

Facing Off Against Rio Gold Medalists Turkey in the Finals

The finals were held on the last day of the tournament. Japan’s line-up consisted of Rie Urata, central defensive figure for the team, and on the wings long-timer Masae Komiya and Eiko Kakehata, who has seen remarkable growth in recent years.

Masae Komiya (left), Rie Urata (center), and Eiko Kakehata (right), smiling

Turkey, on the other hand, has a bona fide star—Sevda Altunoluk, who has been the top scorer in eleven international tournaments in the past. After losing seven points to Turkey in their first-day match, Japan had made adjustments, bringing their triangle formation higher up and placing the team members closer to one another, so that in their match on the second day, they were able to keep Turkey down to five points.

They played in a defensive, triangular formation with Urata (front) at the center

Altunoluk is 174cm tall, with long arms and legs whipping out balls that bounce hard on the court. How would they deal with these balls? The Japan team’s strategy, all the way to the finals, was focused on handling Altunoluk in particular.
Indeed, the day before the finals, Urata had mentioned her own weakness with regards to defense. “I tend to raise my legs too much during defense, so I need to focus on adjusting the height of that to the bounce of the ball, and make sure the ball doesn’t get through.” She went on, saying, “I do think I’ve started to get a sense for it.”

Sevda Altunoluk, whose wide range of offensive attacks got her team 33 points in this tournament

When the match actually began, however, Altunoluk did not engage them with the kind of bouncing balls that she had been using in the preliminaries, instead going for a high-speed, rolling kind of ball known as “grounders.” “It was completely unexpected,” said Head Coach Kyoichi Ichikawa. Japan, unable to adapt to the speed of these balls, lost two points in the first three and a half minutes of the match. This was exacerbated when, six minutes into the first half, Altunoluk moved quietly from the left to the right wing, using Japan’s right-heavy defense to score another—the third—point through the left side of the court.

Though Japan’s left wing Kakehata made some shots with cross-court balls, trying to bring their opponent closer to the center to create an opening on Altunoluk’s outer side, none of these resulted in goals. Turkey also had incredible defensive teamwork, based around center Gulsah Duzgun, and they weren’t about to grant Japan any points.

Even in these circumstances, there was hope. 17-year old Norika Hagiwara played for about two minutes towards the end of the match—her first time competing in an international tournament—and managed to save what could easily have been another goal for Turkey, by going after the ball with incredible determination.
“I was too preoccupied with handling the bounce and the ball actually went over my stomach. I was just thinking, ‘I can’t let this happen.’”

High-schooler Norika Hagiwara threw herself into saving the goal

Though Japan was able to prevent another point, the score from the first half remained unchanged—0-3. Turkey was crowned champion without a single loss in the whole tournament.

“Our performance in this tournament was about 50%.” So said the members of the Turkey national team. What is the secret to their skill?

According to Assistant Coach Eren Yildirim, there are less than 200 women that play goalball in Turkey. Like in other blind parasports (VI judo, blind soccer, etc.), there are coaches that specialize in goalball deployed at schools for the blind, and a scouting network across these schools as well. Goalball in particular, she says, has become popular in Turkey now that the team have become world champions. They have a pyramid-style league with four divisions, and eight teams in each division, with competition intensified as a result of the switching out of teams into various other leagues every year. Players in Division 1, like Altunoluk, are paid a salary by their team. Altunoluk herself seems confident of the amount of time she spends training, saying, “It’s because I work hard, not just for the national team but for the club team as well.”

Altunoluk, the top scorer in the world, is 24 years old

The Key to the Gold Medal—Strengthening Defense

Kakehata scored 11 points for the team in the tournament

Japan, after sinking to No. 5 in the world rankings following last year’s World Championships, had rebuilt their defense and gone in to win the Indonesia 2018 Asian Para Games in October. This tournament as well had been a fruitful one, with things to be learned in terms of defense. On the other hand, however, they had been missing central member Haruka Wakasugi—known for her highly accurate throws—due to an injury and had struggled to diversify their offense, ending with zero points in the finals.

“It’s frustrating to come in second, but there was a lot we learned from this,” said Kakehata, who had emerged the top scorer of the Japan team.

“We’ll definitely be competing against Russia and the countries that came to this tournament when it comes to winning a medal at the Tokyo Paralympics.” So said Head Coach Ichikawa, discussing how meaningful the tournament had been for the team—getting to play against these powerhouse teams from overseas—and expressing his gratitude towards the hosts of the tournament.

Urata remained solid in her conviction.
“If we’re able to bring up our defense—our strength—we’ll really start being able to aim for that winners’ podium in 2020.”

Japan lost to Turkey in the finals, but came in second place

The Japan Para Games will be held this September at the venue that will be used for the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics. There is no question that Japan’s defensive skill is the key to winning that much-coveted gold medal in the Paralympics. And so the team marches on, towards establishing a distinctively Japanese style of goalball—incredible defense that leads into offense—and towards winning that gold medal.

Results of The 2019 Japan Para Goalball Championships

1st Place: Turkey
2nd Place: Japan (Saki Amuro, Rie Urata, Eiko Kakehata, Masae Komiya, Norika Hagiwara, Haruka Wakasugi)
3rd Place: Brazil
4th Place: U.S.

Brazil beat the U.S. 6-5 and came in third place

text by Asuka Senaga
photo by X-1

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