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Long-jumper Hajimu Ashida Wants to Win a Gold and Prove What It Is Like to Own One’s Disability

In December 2018, Hajimu Ashida (T47 / Unilateral upper limb impairment) moved his training grounds to Sydney, Australia. It was in the fourth year since he began the long jump, and he closed the year with a world ranking of No. 5. He opened up to us and spoke his thoughts on how he moved to a new land in his pursuit of transformation that would enable him to win a gold medal at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games.

“I Can’t Win a Gold If Things Remain as Is”

In October 2018, Ashida marked a record of 6.88 meters at the Indonesia 2018 Asian Para Games held in Jakarta and came in third place. It was his first medal-win in the long jump at an international competition. However, it was not joy that he felt. Rather, it was a sense of crisis that welled up inside of him. The distance that had been jumped by the gold medal winner, Wang Hao of China, was a crushing 7.53 meters – just 5 cm short of the world record.

Hajimu Ashida (hereafter “Ashida”): I made my decision to move to Sydney the moment I saw Wang Hao make his first jump. I saw his strength as an athlete and felt that I would have no chance of beating him in Tokyo if things stayed as they were. His take-off is unbelievably strong. It doesn’t look like he’s good at it, but you feel something explosive when he takes off. On the other hand, I’d been feeling that there was work needed on my own take-off. Ever since I started the long jump, I’d been focused in my training on increasing the speed of my approach. The idea was that I’d achieve distance by using the horizontal energy that I’d gain through a speedy approach into vertical power through a powerful take-off. The thing is, it’s hard to reproduce it. Some distance can be achieved if the approach and take-off click into place, but I’d been feeling that I was at a point where I wouldn’t be able to gain any more distance going forward simply by working on my approach.

It was a bronze medal that Ashida won at the Asian Para Games ©X-1

Of course, there had been times when everything really “clicked” into place, like when he jumped 7.15 meters in March 2017, marking a new Japanese record. On the other hand, Ashida was plagued by injuries during the 2017 season.

Ashida: I think that true strength as an athlete is having the ability to not only jump stable distances but also achieve good records when aiming for a win. It also means being able to verbalize how such jumps are possible. The thing is, I couldn’t do that. That was why I went to Australia to train there for a month in January 2018. I wanted to gain new insight.

Ashida found what he was looking for in Australia. Under Alex Stewart, a reputable coach in jump events, he learned the concept of an approach for bringing about an ideal take-off. This approach method sat well with Ashida, who jumped using the spring of his body.

Ashida: The concept behind the coaching that I received from Alex was almost the complete opposite of what I’d been taught up to then. True, the speed of the approach is important. But you run in a way to create a flow that will allow maximum force to be exhibited on take-off. You push straight down into the ground, and you keep pushing down, down and down during the run-up. I used to push down with the ball of my foot, almost like I was scratching the surface. However, his way of running felt like contact with the ground was being made with the whole of the bottom of my feet.

What Ashida learned in Australia felt new and fresh to him. However, it also brought new challenges. After returning to Japan, he found that no matter how hard he tried in different ways, his new approach method did not match the approach technique that he had nurtured before this. He felt that he needed to change. It was with that thought in his heart that he made the aforementioned decision at the end of December 2018 to relocate his training ground to Australia. This decision also meant that he had to leave Coach Shigeo Iso of his alma mater Waseda University’s Track and Field Club. Iso had been serving as Ashida’s personal trainer ever since the long jumper made the decision to aim for a gold medal at the Tokyo Paralympics.

Ashida spoke of how fulfilled he was training in Australia

How could one go about owning one’s impairment?

Ashida: I went to see Coach Iso the day after I returned from Indonesia. He said to me, “I knew that you were going to come see me to say something” (grins wryly). He said that when he saw Wang Hao’s long jump at the Asian Para Games, he got a gut feeling that I would be coming to see him. I told him about my realization and that I wanted to try it out.

Coach Iso remains an important mentor to Ashida. When Ashida was in 12th grade and a student of Waseda Setsusryo Senior High School, he had marked a Japanese record in the 400-meter dash in a para sport competition that he had entered. However, he could not absorb himself in para athletics where one could win even without doing one’s best. It was Coach Iso, whom he met when he was a senior at Waseda University, that changed Ashida’s mind and made him devote himself seriously to para athletics.

Ashida: I’d continued competing in para athletics, but I had no goal before I got serious about it. It was uninteresting to me. In a way, it’s easy to tell oneself, “Well, I have an impairment” and give yourself credit for doing things, especially for someone like me with a minor impairment. Even if you don’t mark a fantastic record, in the world of para sports, they tell you that it’s great. There may be others with better records in the world of able-bodied sports, but they tell you, “You’re really trying hard despite your impairment.” Under circumstances like that, I used my actual impairment as an excuse and gave myself an impairment in my way of thinking. Like, “It couldn’t be helped that I was prone to injury because I had an impairment.” Or, “My record couldn’t help being what it was as compared to able-bodied athletes because I had an impairment,” and so on. Coach Iso saw through that, and he said to me things like, “You need to own your impairment instead of making it an excuse,” and “Don’t make light of things. It’s not as easy as you think.”

Ashida was born with a dislocated right elbow and is unable to bend it. Furthermore, tumors formed during the process of treating the dislocated elbow. After repeated operations to remove the tumor, he was also left with a functional impairment of his right arm. His right arm is about 2 kgs lighter in mass as compared to his left.

Ashida: When I first met him, Coach Iso told me that the first step was for me to recognize that there are things that I’m not capable of doing. Having been able to digest and understand those words created a huge difference in me.

For example, because my right arm is lighter, I can’t help my left arm from swinging more broadly than my right. That has an impact on my lower limbs, too, and it creates an imbalance, which can lead to injuries or lower performance. The thing is, it’s a secondary problem resulting from the impairment in my right arm. I have no impairments in my lower limbs.

In other words, I can’t change the fact that there are things that I am physically unable to do, but I shouldn’t give it meaning beyond the actual fact. In regard to anything other than what I’m unable to do, I need to find ways to use them to the greatest extent possible. In my case, for example, I need to train my back muscles on the right more than the muscles on the left. In other words, that’s the first step for a para athlete toward boosting performance.

“Owning one’s impairment” as mentioned here by Ashida seems to mean that one should not use a secondary problem as a reason for setting a boundary between what one can or cannot do, or for being satisfied with what one has so far achieved.

Ashida: I want to win a gold medal in Tokyo because coming in first among others in a similar situation as me will provide proof that I am “owning my impairment” in the way that Coach Iso speaks of.

I also hope to create a way of seeing the world in which each person can be proud of the results that they achieve by devoting themselves to their field. And, for the people around them to accept and respect them for who they are, regardless of whether that person has an impairment or not. If I come in first in the long jump and show people how I was able to follow my passion through to achieve a result, my words will start to have influence. I wouldn’t be doing this – competing, that is – if it was just for my own sake.

text by Yoshimi Suzuki
photo by Hiroaki Yoda

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