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Challenges and Reforms Seen at the Japan Championships the Year Before the Tokyo Paralympic Games

The 30th Japan Para Athletics Championships were held on June 1 and 2 at Yanmar Stadium Nagai. Many athletes participated with the hope of exceeding the qualifying standards for competing in the Dubai 2019 World Para Athletics Championships taking place in November. With good field conditions during the first half of the Japan Championships, there were expectations placed on new records being marked in various events. It was under such an environment that the athletes faced their respective challenges and placed their sights on the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games.

Shinya Wada, with his new guide runner, marked a new Japanese record in the 1500-meter run (T11/visual impairment)

Results of the Gold Hopefuls for the World Para Athletics Championships

In May at the Beijing 2019 World Para Athletics Grand Prix (The 7th China Open Athletics Championships), the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games silver medalist in the long jump, Atsushi Yamamoto (T63/single above-the-knee amputation), marked a new Japan record. He jumped 6.70 meters at the time, which was just 7 cm short of the world record. There seems to have been fatigue left over from the Beijing Grand Prix, and Yamamoto marked only 6.53 meters at the Japan Championships.

He has always said that the way one feels is the most important thing for marking new records. Yamamoto is probably conscious of his role as an experienced Paralympian who leads the world of para athletics in Japan. On this day, he may not have marked a new record, but he had gone into the Championships declaring that he would break the world record. It was his way of boosting the mood of the Japan Championships. Afterward, he reflected, “Many different conditions have to fall in place for a new record to be marked. It includes the weather, the crowd in the stands, the news coverage and the atmosphere. It is something that you can’t control just on your own.” He did let out a grin over the fact that more than 50 news outlets had gathered to cover the event. At the same time, he did not seem to be completely satisfied since the official report was that there were only 2,030 spectators who had come to the stadium.

Even so, in regard to the fact that eight athletes in the same Sport Class as he entered the Japan Championships, he expressed joy at the promising signs toward 2020 and beyond. He said, “The mood was fantastic. I think that it is the result of the running clinic (for people with above-knee amputations that Yamamoto is involved in together with Rio Paralympics gold medalist Heinrich Popow).”

Marking a world record of 26.64 in the 200-meter sprint, Yamamoto said that he has been able to maintain the strong performance of this season

Tomoki Sato (T52/wheelchair track athlete), who was the only Japanese gold medalist in the World Championships two years ago, won two gold medals in the 400-meter and 1,500-meter races. Yanmar Stadium Nagai has a Tartan track, which makes it difficult for wheelchair athletes since the wheels sink into the surface and become heavy. Sato said, “We don’t know what the track surface is going to be at the stadium (under construction) for the Tokyo Paralympic Games. I entered the Championships because I thought it was important to gain experience on a heavy track,” showing that he is continually keeping the Tokyo Paralympic Games in his sights. He was fired up toward the World Championships in November where he will be reunited with his rivals from around the world for the first time in a while.

The Challenges and Gains of the Athletes Aiming to Secure a Spot for the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games

Countries that place fourth or higher in each event at the World Championships in November will be awarded places in the starting lineup of the respective event at the Tokyo Paralympic Games. For this reason, said World Championships are expected to be one that will decide the prospective entrants for the Tokyo Paralympics.

Saki Takakuwa (T64/unilateral below knee limb deficiency) said, “My aim is to secure a spot in Tokyo by coming in fourth or better this season at the World Championships.” She marked a good record from her first jump in the long jump, and won with a record of 5.24 meters marked on her fourth jump. She said, with a smile on her face, “The record wasn’t bad at all. I’ll use it to boost my confidence toward the competitions that will follow.”

Saki Takakuwa, who won the women’s long jump (T64)

Sae Shigemoto (T47/unilateral below elbow amputation), who marked a new Japanese record in the 400-meter sprint three weeks earlier at the Beijing Grand Prix, entered two events that took place on day 2. She won the 100-meter sprint with a season’s best record of 12.94. However, her 400-meter record was 1:00.15, and she was unable to break the 58.96 Japanese record. She said that she trained in the U.S.A. and Australia this winter and was seeing good results this season but added, in frustration, “I was aiming for a good record, but I became too conscious of my speed in the first half of the sprint, and I sputtered out and lost speed from around past the 300-meter mark.”

The Rise of New Assets in the Javelin Throw

Shunya Takahashi, who marked a record of 53.65 meters and exceeded the qualifying standard for the World Championships

The para athletes who shone the most at the Japan Championships were those in the men’s javelin throw. Tatsuru Ibusuki, Japan Para Athletics’ Chairman of the High Performance Committee, said, “Up until a few years ago, the competitive strengths of the (domestic) athletes were low. However, we are seeing good records starting to be marked with athletes that used to play baseball converting (to the javelin throw). There were even some athletes who achieved the qualifying standard at the Japan Championships, so it looks like we will be able to enter several athletes in the World Championships.”

Akihiro Yamazaki (F46) secured a win with a new Japan Championships record of 56.76 meters

University student Yuta Wakoh, who just began competing in the javelin throw in the F12 visual impairment Sport Class last year, marked a new Japanese record to become the Japan champion. He was captain of the baseball team when he was a student at Nihon University Tsurugaoka Senior High School, which has participated in the National High School Baseball Championship. However, he was diagnosed with Leber hereditary optic neuropathy at age 20. He said, with excitement, “I’m able to make use of my baseball experience in the way I swing my arms as I’m stepping in or throwing. I want to improve my record by boosting my lower-body strength and make it to the Tokyo Paralympic Games.” Meanwhile, Haruki Masanari, who also had his beginnings playing baseball, came in third place at the Japan Championships.

Yuta Wakoh, who won the Championships with a Japan record of 54.25 meters

The Challenges Made by A Gold Medalist in the Winter Paralympic Games

Wheelchair racer Momoka Muraoka sped through the 100-meter sprint

“The queen of a winter sport is making her way into a summer event!” The announcement made by Japan Para Athletics president Akemi Masuda reverberated through the stadium. It was the 100-meter T54/wheelchair racing event on day 2 of the Japan Championships. Momoka Muraoka, who had won five medals, including a gold, at the PyeongChang 2018 Paralympic Winter Games as an alpine skier, entered the event and came in second place with a time of 18.36. She started out in athletics in second grade, but she became captivated by alpine skiing when she was in eighth grade. Since then, she had kept away from athletics tournaments. After finishing her first athletics race in some time, she looked back and said, “I felt pressed out of sheer nerves.” However, she showed a good, strong start and exhibited her high potential in the event. If she can mark a time under the 16.75 qualifying standard for the World Championships, she may have a shot at competing in the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games. She said, “This world isn’t all that easy to get ahead in. I see 2020 as still being a far-off goal for me.” She added, however, “I’ve wanted to ‘run’ for a very long time. Athletics events are, without question, a lot fun.”

text by Asuka Senaga
photo by Rokuro Inoue

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