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Japan Championships: Shinji Ichikawa Wins Leg Impairment Division Amidst Fierce Competition!

The only para snowboard tournament in Japan, the 5th Japan Para Snowboard Championships & Supporters’ Cup, was held from February 17-18 at the Hakuba Norikura Onsen Ski Area in Nagano Prefecture. Up for competition was the snowboard-cross event, with its banks and jumps. The athletes’ supporters also competed in the General Able-Bodied Division, with about 30 people vying for the crown in a variety of classes.

The finals tournament was held knockout-style

Takahito Ichikawa Crowned Champion of the Leg Impairment Division After a Series of Close Matches

Para snowboard had been adopted as an official sport for the first time at the PyeongChang Paralympics last year, and this 5th Japan tournament was attended by athletes headed towards the Beijing 2022 Winter Paralympics. The tournament was divided into the Leg Impairment Division, Arm Impairment Division, Femoral Impairment Division, and a General Able-Bodied Division, for men and women respectively. In this sport fraught with sometimes brutal collisions, we will look first at the Men’s Leg Impairment Division, which had the most number of people competing.

Shinji Tabuchi competes at the world level as a member of the Japan national team

The preliminaries for the Leg Impairment Division were held on the first day, with ten people going down the slopes on their own, getting a total of two attempts. Japan national team member Shinji Tabuchi came in first with a time of 38.03 seconds in his first attempt, followed by Takahito Ichikawa, going for his third consecutive championship title, with 38.50 seconds, and Keiji Okamoto, who started competing for the national team last August, with 38.97 seconds. “I didn’t do as well as I wanted. Tomorrow I’ll definitely win.” So said Ichikawa, promising a comeback.

In the knockout-style finals tournament, two people go down the slopes at once, with the person who comes in first getting to advance to the next stages of the tournament. As the tournament progressed, the top three in the preliminaries advanced to the semi-finals, alongside Ryuta Suzuki, member of the 2017 Japan national team—just as expected.

Ichikawa, in the No. 2 seed, managed first to beat Okamoto in the semi-finals. The turning point came in the fourth bank. Ichikawa had had a bad start, and allowed Okamoto the lead. He says, however, that even in these circumstances, he was “just waiting for the right time to come out ahead.” He managed to put pressure on Okamoto the whole time, and accelerated right at the critical moment, snaking through an opening to come in ahead.

“Ichikawa told me after the match, ‘You can’t leave [the course] open like that, right there,’” said Okamoto, reflecting on the moment he was overtaken, with a wry smile. In fact, he wouldn’t be the only person Ichikawa would say this to in this tournament—Tabuchi would hear the same words after the finals.

The finals race between Ichikawa (left) and Tabuchi was a fierce one

Like in the semi-finals, Ichikawa had a late start. He stayed right behind Tabuchi, however, bumping his board against his to slow him down. As they passed the fourth bank, Ichikawa drove up his speed, overtaking Tabuchi from an open space on his left side, and going on to win his third consecutive victory.

Tabuchi, who’d allowed this comeback victory, said with a wry smile, “Ichikawa told me, ‘You were open in the exact same spot Okamoto was.’” He went on, seemingly frustrated, “He’s really good at overtaking people on a narrow course. He really got me.”

Takahito Ichikawa, champion of the Leg Impairment Division, going down the slopes

Ichikawa, on the other hand, was all cheer and smiles, like a high school student at their first few games. “My goal was an unequivocal, consecutive championship title.” He went on, reflecting on the tournament. “I was able to race the way I’d planned in advance.”

“I knew that both Tabuchi and Okamoto like to go into the fourth bank from the very right side, leaving their left sides open. I had a late start for both races, but unlike before, I was able to keep a level head and come ahead of them when the timing was right.”

Ichikawa had started para snowboard in 2013 following a traffic accident that resulted in the amputation of his left leg. The results of this tournament seemed to have provided to him proof of his own growth.

Ichikawa, here discussing his personal growth, is a major contender for the Japan national team in the Beijing Winter Paralympics

Top Three Front-Runners of the Leg Impairment Division Solidified

After the PyeongChang Winter Paralympics, there had been some significant changes in the competitive landscape of the Leg Impairment Division in Japan. Gurimu Narita, gold medalist in the banked slalom, had retired from para snowboard, ceding the top three positions in the division to the top three discussed earlier.

Their world rankings for snowboard-cross as of February is No. 6 for Ichikawa, No. 7 for Tabuchi, and No. 17 for Okamoto. Ichikawa in particular is blessed with a good training environment, working at a ski resort in Niigata Prefecture while receiving training under Taizo Fukushima, the first person in Japan to compete in able-bodied snowboard-cross in Japan.

Kenichi Niboshi, Chairman of the Japan Snowboarding Association, said thoughtfully, “Under Fukushima, he’s learning not just to be a better snowboarder, but the mentality he needs as an athlete.” Ichikawa’s goal is, of course, the Beijing 2022 Winter Paralympics.

“There’s only three more years left, so I just want to accomplish the goals I set out for myself every year,” said Ichikawa about his ambitions for the future.

Okamoto, who injured his spinal cord in 2015, is a former professional snowboarder

Perhaps the most interesting figure in the competitive landscape is Okamoto, considered the fresh new star of para snowboard. At 37 years old, he had helped lead Japan’s professional snowboarding scene, and has spent his entire career thinking about how he could elevate his slopestyle game. In February 2015, however, he injured his spinal cord while participating in a film, and found himself with an almost fully paralyzed right leg.

Okamoto had competed in this tournament for the first time last year. “My work is related to snowboarding, and I felt this dissonance between the work and me not being able to snowboard,” he said, of his decision to return to the competitive world. He also mentions a lingering regret that he wasn’t able to compete at the Olympics, saying, “Slopestyle only became an official event at the Sochi Winter Olympics. If it’d been a little bit earlier, I might’ve had a chance to go to the Olympics…”

So he decided to aim for the Beijing Winter Paralympics. His commitment to this long-term goal is evident also in his decision not to compete in the World Para Snowboard Championships next month. In his current situation, he says, “I’ll get to the finals tournament at best,” and in that case, he would prefer to use that time to work thoroughly on his own condition and skills. He had also decided to compete in this tournament with a powder snowboard instead of a race snowboard.
“I actually don’t even have [a race snowboard],” he said, grimacing. “I want to spend this year training and learning about the wax and gear settings for it.”

There are already signs of how incredible Okamoto’s performance can be when he is properly prepared. In early February, Okamoto borrowed Ichikawa’s race snowboard and competed in the World Para Snowboard Cup in Canada, coming in 7th and alerting the world to his potential. Tabuchi, who came in 8th, said about the tournament, “Keiji was so fast in Canada, I really felt like ‘oh no, I can’t win.’” Chairman Niboshi also has high expectations, telling us, “He should keep doing better the more he gains experience in snowboard-cross.”

“I started snowboarding because I really like it. I want to remember to enjoy myself no matter what I’m doing,” said Okamoto

We’ll be sure to keep our eye on these front-runners as they go through their various transformations and work towards the Beijing 2022 Winter Paralympics.

text by Yoshimi Suzuki
photo by Haruo Wanibe

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