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Japan Para Athletics Championships: Newbies, Long-Timers, and Heavyweights Alike Bring Their A-Game

The 2019 Japan Para Athletics Championships was held from July 20-21 at the Nagaragawa Stadium at Gifu Memorial Center in Gifu Prefecture. This was the last WPA (World Para Athletics)-certified tournament to be held in Japan this year, and was also the qualifier for Japanese athletes heading into the Dubai 2019 World Para Athletics Championships in November. This particular tournament was shrouded in even more tension than usual, what with the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics only a year away. Here, we cover the athletes that were able to push past this tension to achieve good results in this tournament.

“I Want to Beat My Able-Bodied Personal Best,” Says Kakeru Ishida

Kakeru Ishida set a new Japan record in the 400m event

“My goal is to set a new world record at the Tokyo Paralympics,” announced Kakeru Ishida (T46/unilateral upper limb impairment) to the media. A second-year university student, he was crowned champion of both the 100m and 400m events.

Ishida had begun athletics in middle school in his local Gifu Prefecture, and even gone on to compete in the Inter-High School Championships. Last year, a surgery for an osteosarcoma left him with an impairment in his left arm. He discovered para athletics only six months ago. He quickly rose up the ranks, and set a new Japan record for the 400m event. For this tournament, he was chosen to recite the athlete’s oath of fair play in the opening ceremony. “I’m happy to have overcome my illness, and discovered para athletics,” he said. His journey has just begun.

In this tournament, Ishida set a new Japan record (11.18 seconds) for the 100m event, and fulfilled the cut-off to be part of the world championships roster for Japan Para Athletics. He was unable to reach the 49.70-second cut-off for his main 400m event, however, though he did set a new Japan record (49.89 seconds). He tells us he will try to qualify for the 400m in subsequent tournaments, and that he wants to “try as best I can and work towards beating my able-bodied personal best, which was 48.68 seconds.” He says he has continued to focus mainly on speed training, as he did in high school. And after beating his own record? His next target, he says, will be the world record (47.69 seconds).

“Practice, Practice, Practice Until the Tokyo Paralympics,” Says Chiaki Takada

Chiaki Takada set a new Japan record with an astounding performance

“That was pretty good today!” said Chiaki Takeda (T11/visual impairment) on the first day of the tournament, after her Long Jump event.

The Japan record—her record—was 4.49m. On this day, she needed to get a minimum of 4.51m to make it onto the roster for the world championships. “I knew I had no leeway, and I was so stressed out. But my trainer and coach all came to support me, and I felt good and secure when I finally went to jump.” She got 4.53m on her first try, 4.57m on her third, and on her fourth try, managed 4.60m—an achievement that would put her at No. 3 in the world. She had beat her own Japan record by a significant stretch, and in doing so had showed off her mental fortitude in high-stress situations.

In the 2017 World Para Athletics Championships, she had won a silver medal. She tells us she has worked on her lift-off and her airborne movements/posture since then. “We were training these things for a long time, and finally it’s bearing fruit. It’s fine if the full effect of this training doesn’t show itself until next year, but we’d like to tease more of it out this year, so we’d like more time to train in Japan,” said her guide Shigekazu Omori, with conviction.

She must get within fourth place at the World Para Athletics Championships if she is to qualify for the Tokyo Paralympics. She plans to do just that, and devote the rest of her time to slow, steady training—a build-up to the main event.

“My Performance Here Will be a Source of Confidence,” Says Mana Sasaki

Mana Sasaki qualified for the world championships in her last try

Mana Sasaki completed her race, then looked over to the scoreboard, where her time was displayed. In a second, all of the tension melted off her face. Her time—a new Asia record, at 58.08 seconds. A time that also meant she’d fulfilled the 58.11 cut-off for the Women’s 400m (T13/visual impairment) world championships roster, and in her very last try.

“I was so nervous until I saw my time. The fact that I was able to perform this well in the final qualifiers is going to be a source of confidence for me. The tears just came pouring out [after the race, when my coach came over to talk to me].”

She’d felt pressure and self-doubt, but had gone through the same training sessions as her able-bodied and more experienced peers in the TOHO Bank Athletics Club, to which she belongs, and had racked up steady training without injury. “Now all you need to do is get results,” she’d told herself, over and over. And so she stood at the start line, with all her nerves in order.

During the race, she had focused especially on her first five steps—pushing firmly off the ground—so that she’d be able to accelerate from the start, and pushed herself to maintain speed in the latter half as well. She tells us she has still more to give in terms of her time, and that she feels herself getting closer to her ideal running form, with her arms swinging at a lower point on her body.

“I always had to practice indoors in high school, but now I have a good training environment, and I want to give back to the people who have set up this environment for me, and just in general be an athlete that brings joy to the people around me.”

At only 21 years old, there’s no saying how far she’ll grow.

“I Was Able to Race the Way I Wanted To,” Says Yuki Oya

Yuki Oya set a new Asia record for the 100m event, besting a para athletics legend

In an event—the 100m (T52/wheelchair)—packed with some of the best athletes in para athletics, Yuki Oya zoomed across the finish line ahead of his rivals, with a time of 17.54 seconds. This was a new Asia record, and also meant that this long-time para athletics athlete, with 13 years of competitive experience under his belt, had made the cut-off for the world championships roster.

“The track felt heavy from the humidity and from all the moisture it’d sucked in, but I was able to race in my trademark style—get to the front of the pack, and just stay there—and win. I think I was able to race the way I wanted to race.”

This class included powerhouse athletes like Tomoya Ito, who has won five medals in the Paralympics, including two gold. Their presence, Oya said, was a driving force for him. “Ito, who I really look up to, taught me how to keep my rhythm in the middle of these races, and we’re all always sharing information amongst each other, through LINE and social media.”

It’s not just the presence of rivals that has gotten him to these heights, however. His company, who had seen his rapid rise through the ranks in the past several years, had allowed him to increase his training from two days a week to five. He has trained to improve his starts, which he has always been good at, as well as his weaknesses, and is aiming to win a medal at the Tokyo Paralympics as well.

“I want to go in as an underdog at the world championships, and be able to compete against the American athletes.”

Top Athletes Bring Their Passion and Energy to Gifu Prefecture

There were also many top foreign athletes who came to this tournament to try to get accustomed to the humidity and heat of the Japanese summer, in preparation for Tokyo 2020. Among these athletes was Rio Paralympics gold medalist Scott Reardon (Australia), who won an overwhelming victory in the 100m (T63) event. “There were a lot of amputees, and I was able to really enjoy the race,” he said, looking satisfied with his experience.

Scott Reardon, who has an above-the-knee prosthesis on his right leg, won an overwhelming victory in the 100m event

The last event of the tournament was the Men’s Long Jump. Just like last year, it was Rio Paralympic gold medalist Markus Rehm (T64/unilateral below-knee limb deficiency), who had come to compete from Germany, who was crowned champion of the event, with a 8.38m jump on his last try that astounded the crowd.

“8.38m is the same record as the gold medalist at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics. I haven’t been able to fulfill my dream of competing in the Olympics, but I think I was able to show that Paralympians are bringing the same passion and energy too,” said Rehm. “My goal for the Tokyo Paralympics next year is to set a new world record,” he announced, smiling, before leaving the venue.

text by Asuka Senaga
photo by X-1

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