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Eri Yamamoto of Parasapo on Living “i enjoy!” and Working Towards a More Inclusive Society

It’s an era of second jobs here in Japan, with more and more people doubling up or taking side jobs for a variety of reasons. Some of us involved in the Paralympics have done so as well, including Eri Yamamoto, who is a powerful presence at the Nippon Foundation Paralympic Support Center (Parasapo), where she serves as a full-time staff member, working on projects to increase awareness for people with impairments, while also working towards the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics as a para powerlifter. In Part 1 of this two-part interview, we ask her about her life—from starting swimming at 9 years old to becoming a staff member at Parasapo at age 32.

Yamamoto’s work is in educational and training programs that aim to improve public understanding of people with impairments, and encourage learning about diversity through the lens of parasports. She is in charge of Asuchalle Academy, aimed towards children 15 years or older, and Asuchalle Junior Academy, for elementary and middle school students, and develops seminars and trains instructors for these programs. She will also occasionally take the lectern herself, drawing the audience in and making them laugh with her witty talk and her bright, clear voice.

“It’s not really fun just to sit there and listen. We want ‘Asuchalle Academy’ to be workshop-style and fun, based on the three pillars of Lectures, Workshops, and Groupwork,” said Yamamoto ©︎Parasapo

Discovering a Sense of Freedom in the Pool: A Moment of Shock and Wonder

━━You said you started swimming when you were nine, but it seems that at the time you didn’t even like touching water in general.

Yes, I hated it [laughs]. Ever since I can remember, I didn’t want to take baths, I didn’t like showers, and I hated summer because I’d have to go to the pool. My mom was always really strict on me, and she was actually the one who recommended swimming to me. Later, she told me she chose swimming because it was one thing she knew I might be defenseless against in the future. She thought, “If there’s ever a flood or something, she’ll die. I have to get her to learn how to swim.” She went through every single swimming school she could find in the phone book, looking for a school that would teach me.

Finally, she took me to a swimming school near my house that was for kids with impairments. I was so resistant to the idea that the night before my first day, I had a dream I was drowning. Even when I was about to go in the pool, I was thinking, “If I almost drown, they’ll have to give up on teaching me,” and I went into the pool hoping I would start drowning. But as soon as I got into the water, I found myself face-down, with my legs floating in the water. And then I started moving my arms, and I was swimming! I realized all of a sudden that I was so much freer here in the water than on land, and thought, “I can really do this!” I’d spent my life thinking I could never be as good as other people, and finally, I felt as if I was on an even playing field.

Until then, I was the kind of person that couldn’t even say “thank you” to my friends. I thought it was unfair that I was always the one needing help, and having to say thanks for it. I wanted to be thanked too, but there wasn’t anything I was good at, so I couldn’t do anything for anyone. But with this, I’d finally found something I was good at. The most significant thing for me, and what made it such a turning point in my life, was that I’d felt for the first time that I might be able to do something for people, have them thank me.

Yamamoto (left photo) says her initial motivation for getting to the Paralympics was her coach telling her she could “travel overseas for free.” She also played ice sledge hockey when she studied abroad in Canada at 27 years old (right photo; leftmost, center row). *Photos provided by Yamamoto herself

An Unexpected Incident Takes Her on the Path to Psychology

From then until high school, I was hoping, secretly, that I’d be able to compete in the Paralympics for swimming. But in my second year of high school I had to be hospitalized for a while because of a low-temperature burn. Having to stay in hospital right when my times had been getting a lot better was really discouraging. I lost sight of my future in swimming, and quit trying to pursue it competitively. But it wasn’t like I was depressed at the time. In fact, I actually discovered a new goal for myself while I was in the hospital.

I became close with a group of other patients that were older than me, and every night we’d talk and have fun playing card games. There, a man whose lower body had become paralyzed told me something that really stunned me. He told me, “You know, Eri, I was ready to die—wanted to die. I couldn’t move my legs anymore, and I felt like life was hopeless. But then I met you, and saw how cheerful and optimistic you were, even though you were born with this impairment. It made me think, ‘There are other ways to live life.’”

Right around that time, I watched a movie called Patch Adams, which is about a man who helps people by making them laugh. The movie and what the man said to me kind of connected in my head, and I realized, “This might be what I’m supposed to do.” So I decided to go to university to learn psychology.

I spent my four years in university just learning and learning and learning about psychology. I thought really hard about how I could make people think more positively, and create a better, brighter future for themselves. I was just wondering whether I should continue to graduate school and become a researcher, when I got a call from Coach Sakurai, who is also the Director of the Japanese Para-Swimming Federation. He asked me if I wanted to be a mental coach. He also encouraged me to go on to graduate school, telling me, “You might not be going as a swimmer anymore, but you can still go to the Paralympics and give other people support.”

How Wanting to Enjoy Life More Led Her to Parasapo

“During my time studying abroad in Canada, I went with the Japan national para swimming team to their training camp in the UK, right before the London 2012 Paralympics, as their interpreter. I was also able to work in the Japan House during the Paralympics, which was a really good experience for me,” said Yamamoto

━━Looking through your profile, it seems like your experiences around this time, studying in graduate schools in both Japan and Canada were a big part of what drove you to where you are now.

Yes, you’re right. I did end up working as a mental coach for the Japan national para swimming team in graduate school, but of course, all the things I’d learned in school were for able-bodied athletes. I realized, gradually and while on the job, that para-athletes needed a different kind of mental training. And of course, it wasn’t like everything was going smoothly around this time. I was chosen to accompany the team to the Beijing Paralympics—which had been my dream—but was so stressed out by the pressure that I developed acute gastroenteritis. And when I actually did get to Beijing, my English was so bad that I felt awful and completely useless. After the Paralympics ended, I actually sent the entire staff a letter telling them how sorry I was.

I remember at the time wondering whether I could continue being involved in para swimming. The same year I finished graduate school in Japan, I decided to study abroad at a graduate school in Canada to relearn psychology in a new environment . There, with Canada being one of the world’s greatest nation of immigrants, I experienced firsthand what it was like to live in a tolerant, multi-cultural, inclusive society. I was amazed at how people of all different religions, skin colors, and languages could come together, communicate in English, and practice empathy for another, creating this inclusive country . The curriculum in Canada also allowed me to guide undergraduate students who were studying parasports, and I think that was a big point of growth for me as well.

Maybe this is why I decided to do it. After Tokyo 2020 was announced, I got a call from Coach Sakurai, who told me that there were places now, in Japan, where I could do work for the Paralympics. I hadn’t even finished graduate school yet, but I immediately thought, “I have to go back.” I went back in the fall, and in November, started working for the Nippon Foundation Paralympic Support Center. And when I went into the office for the first time, and saw the “i enjoy!” slogan displayed all across the wall, I thought, “Wow, I’ve come to a really good place.” This was because the meaning behind “i enjoy!” is something I’ve always thought of myself, and because it eventually ended up being the motto for my life afterwards.

(See Part 2)

text by Mayumi Tanihata
photo by Yuki Maita(NOSTY)

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