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2019 Canoe Final Overseas Qualifiers: Seryu and Co. Win But Struggle With Strong Winds

The 29th Fuchu Lake Canoe Regatta was held in conjunction with the Oversea Qualifiers for the able-bodied Canoe Sprint event, from March 27-31 in Sakaide City, Kagawa Prefecture. The event also served as the Final Overseas Qualifiers for the Canoe event as well.

The athletes were blessed with clear skies on the day of the tournament, and a temperature of 13 degrees Celsius. The race began, however, under difficult conditions, with a wind blowing from the southwesterly direction, creating waves on the surface of the water.

Japan’s Star Monika Seryu Aims for a Medal at the World Championships

Seryu (front) going down the 200 m straight-line course on Fuchu Lake

The focal point of the Canoe qualifiers was Monika Seryu, who was the only Japanese person to compete in the event at the Rio Paralympics in 2016. The first event—Kayak. Because the only opponent in her class had withdrawn from the tournament, Seryu ended up in a race with all of the canoeists from the Women’s KL1 to KL3 classes at the same time. Seryu, who belongs to the KL1 class (the heaviest level of impairment) came in after Yoshimi Kaji of the KL3 class (the lightest level of impairment), “winning” the KL1 class with a time of 1 minute 8.309 seconds. She also competed in the Va’a event about two hours later, finishing with a time of 1 minute 42.123 seconds, and qualifying as a canoe overseas athlete for the year of 2019.

A solid victory, two years in a row. And yet star canoeist Seryu is fixed on only one goal—winning a medal at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics. “There was wind, yes, but my time’s gotten worse by about 10 seconds since I measured it in early March. I want to reflect on what I’ve been doing and figure out where exactly that’s coming from,” she said, the picture of calm.

Seryu is from Koto City, Tokyo, and her drive to win at the Tokyo Paralympics—in her home city—is stronger than most
©Kazuyuki Ogawa

The Canoe event at the Paralympics is a 200 m sprint. Seryu’s specialty is her speed at the beginning of the races. Over time, however, she’s trained so that she hits her maximum, speed at around the 100 m mark, to prevent the loss of speed in the second half of the race. She tells us she has also trained in Okinawa, Australia, etc., during the winter, and worked on her endurance at the same time. “But maybe I’m not seeing the results of that training yet,” she said. The World Championships—a very important factor in qualifying for the Tokyo Paralympics—is coming up this August, but the battle to qualify will go on into 2020. To get to the Paralympics, she will need to be ranked amongst the top ten in the world for the Canoe event. “I want to really go for a medal at the World Championships,” she said, this lofty goal intended to inspire her in her journey towards the Paralympics.

Hiromi Tatsumi Wins Two Events in the Mixed-Bag Men’s L3 Class

Men’s VL3 Class champion Tatsumi (center), 2nd place Imai, and 3rd place Suwa

Over on the Men’s side, Hiromi Tatsumi (KL3/VL3) won two events in the classes with lighter impairments. The Kayak event began amidst strong waves, the canoes rocking back and forth on the water. Though he fell behind slightly in the beginning, he soon regained speed with his steady paddling, and recovered in the second half of the race.
“When I start, I put my paddle halfway into the water [so I can paddle as soon as the race begins] but the waves from the side were really strong today and I was so desperate to keep balance that things didn’t go very well,” he said, reflecting on the race. He went on, however, discussing how his winter training had given his skills more depth. “Before, when someone came in front of me, there were times when I’d panic and my paddle would lose some of its “push” on the water, but today I was able to go the whole time just making sure my movements were fluid, envisioning myself reaching as far as I could with the paddle,” he said, expressing confidence in his growth as an athlete.

Post-Rio Canoeists Show Promise

Takagi, a former baseball player, aims to compete in the Kayak event at the Tokyo Paralympics

The Men’s events, moreover, saw good performances from canoeists that had come into the sport after the Rio Paralympics. 24-year old Yuta Takagi, who was champion of the KL1 class in the tournament, had started canoe in 2017, after stints in other sports like wheelchair softball. He lives in Ishikawa Prefecture, which is home to a National Training Center (Event-Specific Affiliated National Training Center Facility), and has grown his skills rapidly over a short period of time. Though on this day he managed to win the windswept race, he came out of it with a decidedly average time of 1 minute 6.995 seconds. “I want to put more thought into my training—not always going in the same direction but learning to paddle in all different directions—so I’m better equipped to deal with changes in the environment,” he told us.

Takagi’s goal is, of course, competing in the Tokyo Paralympics. “I can still get so much better. I want to study the world’s top canoeists, somehow get myself into the top ten worldwide, and qualify for the Paralympics,” he said, sounding determined.

Takanori Kato is working to refine his equipment while competing in the Kayak and Va’a events
©Kazuyuki Ogawa

Takanori Kato, winner of the KL2 and VL2 classes, also got into canoe after the Rio Paralympics. Kato had suffered a spinal injury while snowboarding at the age of 26, and had since been involved in a number of water sports, including surfing. He tells us that during that time, he had participated in a canoe workshop. When he first started the sport, he had no intention of working up to the world stage. In 2016, however, he became interested in the Paralympics, and participated in an athlete recruitment program hosted by the Japanese Paralympic Committee. In the course of trying various sports, he came to the sense that he was most suited to outdoor sports, and decided to try for the Paralympics. Now, at 40 years old, he works at a company as an athlete, and is working towards the Tokyo Paralympics.

Looking back on the tournament, Kato said, “We had to wait a while today before the race started, and the cold made my body stiff and made it hard to move normally,” he said. “But if I want to hold my own overseas, I have to be an athlete that can handle any kind of condition. I want to work on everything—my skills, my equipment, my physical strength—before heading into the World Championships this year and next year,” he said firmly.

Also in attendance in the KL3 class was Wataru Horie, a renaissance athlete that has competed in the PyeongChang Paralympics for Para Ice Hockey and also played as a professional wheelchair basketball player. Despite only starting canoe last August and competing in about 40 races total, he finished the race in 4th place. “I want to improve my time and go for Japan champion next time,” he said, smiling.

Wataru Horie, aiming to become a summer-winter Paralympian, made his debut in the official tournament scene
©Kazuyuki Ogawa

Results of the 2019 Canoe Final Overseas Qualifiers

Women’s KL1 Class: (1) Monika Seryu
Women’s KL2 Class: (1) Shiho Miyajima
Women’s KL3 Class: (1) Yoshimi Kaji, (2) Shiori Masuda
Men’s KL1 Class: (1) Yuta Takagi, (2) Ryo Tamura
Men’s KL2 Class: (1) Takanori Kato, (2) Tadayuki Tomioka, (3) Eiki Morishima
Men’s KL3 Class: (1) Hiromi Tatsumi, (2) Makoto Koyama, (3) Koichi Imai
Women’s VL1 Class: (1) Monika Seryu
Women’s VL3 Class: (1) Shiho Miyajima
Men’s VL2 Class: (1) Takanori Kato
Men’s VL3 Class: (1) Hiromi Tatsumi, (2) Koichi Imai, (3) Masaaki Suwa

After the tournament, the athletes took a commemorative photo around the volunteers

text by Asuka Senaga
key visual by Kazuyuki Ogawa

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