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Talking to Kanami Furukawa, Tokyo 2020 Contender for Intellectual Impairment Para Table Tennis

22-year old Kanami Furukawa, ranked 5th in the world as of November 2019, is thought to be the closest in the world of Japanese intellectual impairment para table tennis to nabbing a spot at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games. She’s had numerous triumphs, winning a bronze medal in the Women’s Singles event at the ITTF Para World Championships held in 2018, and beating powerhouse players in the 2018 Japan Open. Her days are jam-packed, what with her table tennis and her work at a mentaiko (spicy cod roe) factory. We visited her at her training site in Fukuoka to uncover what she is like as a person, and to see what drives her as a table tennis player and as an athlete.


Kanami Furukawa: “Technician” of Intellectual Impairment Para Table Tennis

――Furukawa says she started table tennis in middle school. Nowadays she trains under Coach Keita Iho, who is very understanding about her impairment, and lives a very table tennis-centered life. What was her journey like to get to this point in her life?

Q: Why did you join the table tennis team in middle school?

A: I’ve always liked being active, and at the time I really wanted to be one of those girls that plays softball. I also just wanted to be really passionate about something with other people. But I did also think I could do things more at my own pace if I did an individual sport. So I looked at a few sports with my friends from elementary school, and we all joined the table tennis team together. At the time though I didn’t think that I’d be on the Japan national team, of course [laughs].

Q: How did you discover para table tennis?

A: I came across it in my third year of middle school. I’d been competing in regional tournaments, so it seemed natural that I compete in the youth tournament for intellectual impairment para table tennis that was being held in my local Fukuoka. Someone from the Japan Table Tennis Federation for Players with an Intellectual Disability recommended that I start playing para table tennis, partly because I beat the championship contender for the tournament. After that, I started competing in all kinds of tournaments.

Q: You received your impairment classification for the sport, then competed in your first world tournament in 2015. How did you feel at the time?

A: I was so, so nervous. The tournament was in Taiwan, and the event was the kind of thing you see on TV. There were red mats laid out, and I just thought, wow, what an incredible event. I was also surprised at how many more umpires there were compared to tournaments in Japan. Everything just felt so new.

――Four years ago, Furukawa made significant changes to her training environment. The reason? Her Japanese rivals had grown stronger, and she was beginning to struggle against them.

Q: You said your mother found your current training site on the Internet?

A: Yes. The table tennis team at my high school didn’t do much, so I was training at a table tennis gym far away. It was obviously very fun, but I’d play most of the time against people much older than me. Now I train with junior players from elementary to high school. I really respect all the players who compete in high-level regional tournaments, and who are training for the All Japan Junior High School Sports Championships, and they also motivate me as well.

Q: Who is Coach Iho to you?

A: I feel like I can relax when my coach is on the bench. In the Japan Open this August, I beat a gold medalist from the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games, and I think my coach being on the bench—a first for an international tournament—played a big part in that. It’s hard to have him accompany me on my overseas tournaments, but next year’s Paralympic Games are going to be in Tokyo! I’ll definitely have my coach keep his schedule open for that.

Q: I heard your coach taught you your crouching serve—a technique of yours—with an EXILE song.

A: The way my coach teaches, it’s really easy to understand. This means it’s easy to learn things—I learned the crouching serve really quickly, for example, and now I can wear my opponents down using five different types of serves.
On weekdays I work at a mentaiko (spicy cod roe) factory, then train afterwards. Every day, I’m just so excited to go to the table tennis gym. Although there are times when my coach will see my expression and make me go home immediately, saying I look really tired…

Q: Nowadays I train hard every day with the goal of competing in the Tokyo Paralympic Games.

A: In addition to upping my training time, I also started going to the gym about two years ago, to strengthen my lower body—which I think has made my serves more stable? The Paralympic Games seemed impossible for me for Rio, and of course it’s just not an easy thing to get into. But I do feel like I’m getting closer, little by little. I want to keep working hard to maintain my world ranking.

――Furukawa’s ability is such that Coach Iho has even declared, “You have the skill to win gold.” What is she doing now, as she prepares to go against the world’s top players, the best of the best?

Q: What are the issues you’re working out?

A: Concentration. In the semi-finals of the Japan Open, I managed to play a full-set match against the world’s top player, from Russia—a player I’d never even been able to win one set against in the past. But I just couldn’t get my concentration to last until the end, especially because she was a chopper as well. In future matches I want to keep my concentration until the very end, and 100% claim that victory. I think I just have to practice sustaining my concentration on a regular basis. It’s hard for me to figure out, as well, when I’m concentrating and when I’m not, so I get my coach to yell at me when I’m not so I can get back on track.

Q: What is your focus in your training?

A: I’m working on my stamina, so I’m trying to strengthen my footwork. I’m starting to feel the effects of this—like now I can play a full-set match without being as tired!

Q: Is there something you always do before a match?

A: I listen to music that hypes me up and wear shiny accessories, like gold ones, to get myself amped up for my match. Other than that, makeup. I think there are a lot of ways to get yourself motivated, but my routine is to put on some light foundation, blush, and lipstick before my matches. This is actually something that I started after I told my coach, “I don’t know how to get myself into the right spirit.”

Q: What do you do during your time off?

A: On my days off I tend to spend an hour putting on a full face of makeup, and go out with my friends, although sometimes I do rest at home. My hair today is silver now that the purple’s faded, but I like to put on color contacts that match my hair color, and fake eyelashes too. We go to places like Hakata or Tenjin. We look up all the recent trends beforehand, then we go out and do things like watch movies, or get bubble tea!

Q: With the new year it’ll finally be 2020, the year of the Tokyo Paralympic Games.

A: I think when people hear para table tennis, they tend to think of those with physical impairment. I want to do well so I can up awareness for intellectual impairment para table tennis too. I feel like I’m gradually getting more attention after winning that medal at the Para World Championships, so I do think it’s important to get results. I’m going to work as hard as I can to win gold at the Tokyo Paralympic Games!

text by Asuka Senaga
photo by Masashi Yamada, X-1

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