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All Japan Taekwondo Championship Para Kyorugi: Last Year’s Champions Show Off Their Skill

The All Japan Taekwondo Championship was held at the Chiba Port Arena on February 16. Though some nationally designated players chose not to compete and instead went to an international tournament held around the same time, Shunsuke Kudo and Shoko Ota, who won bronze medals in the World Championships, were in attendance, as well as Chikara Ito, Japan’s para taekwondo pioneer—the three members of the winners’ podium at last year’s tournament, ready to battle it all out again.

Kudo before a match, with an air of tension about him

61kg+ Class: Shunsuke Kudo Crowned Champion for the Second Consecutive Time After an Ultra-Efficient Match

Crowned champion for the second consecutive time in this tournament was Kudo of the 61kg+ class. Champion of this same tournament last year, he is gaining rapid momentum, having also won a bronze medal in the World Para Taekwondo Championships held in Turkey on February 5-6. His opponent in the finals—Kazuki Ishihara, who came in third place in the tournament last year. To get to the finals, Ishihara had claimed victory over Shota Abe (deficiency of both arms), yelling and landing a series of attacks.

Ishihara (right) yelling while executing a powerful kick in the semi-finals

Kudo, who won the first point with a front leg kick (bucheo), went from there into a full-blown, aggressive attack. “I was in the zone—my body was just moving on its own,” he said after the match, about his series of roundhouse kicks (dollyo-chagi). He was quick to rack up points, and when he hit 20, Ishihara threw in the towel.

Reflecting on the match Kudo said, “My body was just reacting to what was happening—it’s like I blanked out during the match. But I do think I was able to play to my strengths, because the match ended quicker than I’d expected. I’d been working on consecutive kicks in my training, and I was able to put that into practice.” He said that being able to beat the No. 1 ranked player in the world—from Azerbaijan—in the recent World Championships had also done a lot to heighten his confidence. “Skill-wise he’s definitely better than me, so I think it was good I went all-in, trying to beat him with sheer determination, and treated it as a training opportunity with someone more skilled. From now on, I’ll be taking each day as it comes, and working towards the Tokyo Paralympics,” he said, his sights already set to 2020.

After landing his first kick, Kudo went into a flurry of roundhouse kicks, winning the match

61kg- Class: Chikara Ito Claims Victory for the Second Year in a Row with His Level-Headed Game

The 61kg- class—the most populated of the classes in this tournament, with five people—was dominated once again by last year’s champion, Ito. Though he had not performed as well as he wanted in the World Championships, and there had been talk that he was not in very good condition, he dazzled audiences in this tournament with his rapid kicks, his adaptability, and his deep knowledge of the sport itself. In his first match, the semi-finals, he went against Shunsuke Tanaka, taking the match all the way to the third and final round, and winning 22-2—an overwhelming victory. Even the way he stood there on the court, assessing his opponent with his able left arm held in front of him, his hips low, seemed practiced.

Ito (left) overwhelmed Shigemizu with his quick steps and kicks

In the finals, Ito continued to keep a close eye on his opponent, expertly dodging his kicks and turning them into attacks. Ito would wait for an opening from his opponent, former kickboxer Koji Shigemizu, and launch into rapid, aggressive attacks, maintaining control of the match through his understanding of the match flow. While Shigemizu began to panic and came out more aggressively in the second half, he managed to land a twi-myo dwi chagi as a counterattack, and pumped his fists in the air. The match continued into the third round, but was won by Ito with a 20 point gap, in a win by point gap (PTG)*. It was so overwhelming a win that it seemed almost as if Ito had used the time to its fullest to try out various techniques.

* PTG: Win determined when there is a 12-point gap in points after the end of the second round or during the third round

Ito smiling, holding his gold medal

Throughout the match, the audience cheered loudly for Ito. “When I first started out there weren’t very many people who’d cheer for me, so to have this many people cheering for me, and being able to win—it’s really nice,” he said, reflecting on the match. “I think I was able to see what he was doing and deal with it accordingly, and go into offense when I needed to. I’ve also started being able to make twi-myo dwi chagi, which was something I’d been practicing since I started taekwondo, and use it as a counter when my opponent’s come out in front. I couldn’t help that fist pump after I won those points with the twi-myo dwi chagi —it was partly to drive myself on as well,” he continued, smiling. He maintained a sense of tension, however, saying, “But if you look at it from the world perspective, an all-Japan tournament is not very high-level. I think it’d be good for me and the others to lead para taekwondo in Japan, and up the domestic competitiveness of the sport.”

Women’s: Shoko Ota Wins Despite Physical Disadvantage

Ota (left) stepped nimbly around, making rhythmic kicks while making sure not to stand directly in front of her opponent

With only three people registered to compete, the women’s event was held without weight classes. The finals match was to be Ota, last year’s champion and bronze medalist at the World Championships, against Emi Sugimoto, who had bested Yukie Ito in the semi-finals. While Sugimoto used her physical size to her advantage and came out aggressively, Ota’s strategy was to step nimbly around her opponent, going around her while simultaneously getting in some kicks. Ota was the first to win a point. Though Sugimoto also won a point with a heavier kick, Ota continued to step around her, and managed to win consecutive points with a series of lighter-footed kicks. Ota seemed to be using her experience—she has won a medal in the winter Paralympics in the past—to her advantage, with the stamina to keep moving, and the level-headedness to know when to move quickly and when to pause and rest. She blocked Sugimoto’s approaching leg with a bucheo then won points through a series of dollyo-chagi with the left and right legs, ending the first round with a 28-10 lead.

In the second round, Ota continued her rhythmic steps, using this rhythm to propel herself into a series of kicks, everything a complete flow—from dodging her opponent’s kick to propelling herself into her own kick. Though Sugimoto won back some points by using her body, pushing Ota and turning the momentum into a kick, it wasn’t enough, and when the score came to 34-14, a 20-point difference, Ota was declared the winner.

Ota pumping her fists on the winners’ podium

Since last October, Ota has been employed by SoftBank, and nowadays she spends most of her time in training-related activities, going running and working with a personal trainer in addition to her training at the dojo. She says that her experience competing against the world’s No. 1 ranked player, taking the match all the way to a golden point round, and eventually winning that match had been a huge source of confidence for her. “She was physically large, and I think I was able to win because my coach told me to step around her. I feel like I’m finally coming into playing ‘real’ taekwondo,” she said humbly, smiling. “I’ve gotten older compared to when I was skiing and physically it can be tough sometimes, but I think my strength is the fact that I’ve competed in these big, world-level tournaments before. At the Tokyo Paralympics, I want to show everyone how high a Japanese athlete can go, and fill up that venue.” There, at that same venue in Chiba where the Paralympics would be held, she expressed her renewed commitment to the sport.

text by Shigeki Masutani
photo by X-1

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