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The Powerhouses of All-Japan Para Powerlifting Set a Flood of New Japan Records!

The 19th All-Japan Para Powerlifting International Invitational Competition was held at the Nihon Kogakuin Hachioji College in Tokyo on February 2 and 3, with players invited from Vietnam, Korea, and Laos.

A total of 51 powerlifters came to compete in the tournament, in part to earn a spot at the World Para Powerlifting Championships (July, Kazakhstan), necessary to qualify for the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics. Champions were crowned in each of the men’s ten classes and the women’s eight classes, with new Japan records established in a total of seven classes.

Powerlifters from Vietnam, Korea, and Laos came to compete in the tournament

Eri Yamamoto MacDonald and Her Commitment to Perfection

The background music, performed by students of the college where the tournament was held, did well to rouse the athlete’s spirits as they readied themselves to compete on the dramatically decorated, black and red stage. On the first day, when there were Japan records set in four women’s classes and one men’s class, the star of the show—setting a 59kg record, adding to her previous Japan record by 6kg—was Eri Yamamoto MacDonald of the Women’s 55kg class.

Yamamoto started at 52kg, then lifted 56kg in her second try, thereby earning a spot in the World Championships. It wouldn’t have been surprising if at this point she’d relaxed and celebrated, but she kept her eyes on the prize, knowing exactly what she wanted.

Yamamoto had not been able to set any records at the World Championships in December 2017, and had been disqualified in the World Para Powerlifting Asia-Oceania Open Championships in September of last year. In the past year, she had worked to gain 5kg, steadily building more muscle, but at international tournaments when she brought the bar back down to her chest, it would always lean to one side, never stable. That’s why this time, she’d decided to focus on accuracy. “I’d decided in my head that I was going to get nine white lights.”

After making this decision for herself, she had focused on her mental training. Since the World Para Powerlifting Americans Open Championships in December of last year, she’d worked to train while imagining herself going up on the bench for a tournament. She said of the intensity of her training sessions, “I was able to get my heart rate in these sessions up to about the same as when I’m actually competing in a tournament.”

In this tournament, her mental training and her focus on concentration bore fruit, with all three referees giving her three white lights for each of her three lifts. Upon discovering after her third attempt that she had been able to get all nine white lights, she pumped her fist in the air, releasing all the joy she’d been holding in throughout.

Eri Yamamoto MacDonald beat her own Japan record by 6kg, and was crowned champion of the Women’s 55kg class

Yamamoto’s joy was amplified by the fact that she had won the exact way she had wanted to win. Though she failed to lift 60kg in her fourth “special” attempt, she said, relieved, “Finally I feel like I’ve made it to the start line.” It’s now been three years since she started para powerlifting. The “start line” she refers to leads, of course, to the Tokyo Paralympics.

“My results here mean I get to go to the World Championships, and I just feel I’ve gotten one step closer to 2020. I just want to keep moving forward with all the people who’ve supported me,” she said cheerily.

Fast-Rising Kentaro Higuchi Wins His Second Consecutive Victory

The second day, with the seven men’s classes, was another exhibition of the advancements Japan’s young, strong-armed athletes had made. Makoto Majima of the 97kg class has an interesting background, having switched over to para powerlifting in 2016 after winning a silver medal in ice sledge hockey (currently para ice hockey) at the Vancouver 2010 Paralympics.

In this tournament, he managed to set a new Japan record, groaning and lifting 160kg in his second attempt, and earning three white lights. Though he failed his third attempt, he still fulfilled the standards he needed to earn a spot at the World Championships, and he’d managed to take the first step towards competing in the Tokyo Paralympics. “I want to lift 165kg at the Challenge Cup in April,” he said after the match, already looking towards the future.

Makoto Majima, who has competed in the Winter Paralympics, was crowned champion of the 97kg class

There was also a young and talented athlete, who despite not setting a Japan record, showed up the tournament with his quiet resolve—Kentaro Higuchi of the 72kg class.

With his first attempt he managed 160kg, and his second attempt 170kg. Although in his third attempt, when he challenged himself to 174kg—3kg more than his own Japan record of 171kg—he received three red lights, he still managed to set himself far beyond the other athletes, who managed only to hit 138kg.

It was an overwhelming victory for Higuchi. His appeal, however, lies in the fact that he doesn’t all-out celebrate these kinds of victories. “It’s because my goal is to compete against the world,” he said, setting his sights high. True to his word, he didn’t show a single obvious sign of joy during the whole match—no pumping of fists, no smile celebrating his performance. You can see in his attitude that he understands he is on route towards his dream, and that he will not let himself relax until he achieves it.

46-year old Kentaro Higuchi was champion of the 72kg class

Higuchi first came across para powerlifting in autumn 2017. In September of the same year, he was rear-ended by a car while on his motorcycle, and had his right leg amputated below the thigh. Soon after, he started considering competing in the Paralympics.

He chose para powerlifting out of the many para-sports because he had always liked bench pressing, and thought, “I might have a chance with this.” After making the decision, he was quick to go into action. Partly at the recommendation of medical staff, he competed in a trial event for the All-Japan Para Powerlifting Championships, going straight from the hospital to the event, in November of the same year. There, he qualified for the championships, and at the championships itself the next month, he shot up—already—to the top of the sport.

Since, he has utilized his experience as a trainer to build a detailed training plan to get to the Tokyo Paralympics. He devotes two hours to training every day, from 6:00 A.M. to 8:00 A.M., before going into his work as a part-time science teacher at an elementary school in Arakawa City, Tokyo. Though balancing his training with his work, his skill in the sport progressed dramatically, with his maximum lift increasing 35kg in the past year. His goal in 2019 is to get to 190kg.

Currently, in February, he is ranked 13th in the world. If he goes on to achieve 180kg, he will make it into the top 10, earning a spot to compete in the Tokyo Paralympics, and if he gets up to 190kg, he even has the chance to make it on the winners’ podium. This 46-year old, moving steadily up the ranks, definitely seems as if he will make it all the way.

Katsuhito Nakatsuji Becomes Japan’s First 200kg Para Lifter!

The more experienced powerlifters showed off their skill as well. On the first day, Tetsuo Nishizaki of the 54kg class set a new Japan record with his 137kg lift. “I managed the bare minimum, but there’s a lot I need to work on mentally—I still can’t make it on the first attempt, for example,” he said, speaking to the points he needed to improve.

Tetsuo Nishizaki of the 54kg class set a new Japan record with his 137kg lift

Katsuhito Nakatsuji of the 107kg class also made an incredible showing at the end of the tournament. This 49-year old, who began the sport in his 30s, became Japan’s first 200kg lifter across all classes.

Nakatsuji aims to lift over 200kg in the World Championships

>>> Result of the 19th All-Japan Para Powerlifting International Invitational Competition (Japanese)

text by Yoshimi Suzuki
photo by Haruo Wanibe

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