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The Para Athletics Championships as Their Ticket to the Paralympics (Part 1)

The Dubai 2019 Para Athletics Championships, 2019’s largest-scale international parasport tournament, was held from November 7-15 in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

1,400 athletes from about 120 countries and regions showed up to compete in this tournament, dubbed the “preliminary to the Tokyo Paralympic Games.” Because the four top countries would win slots to compete in Tokyo 2020, Japan made the Para Athletics Championships its greatest target, allowing players who won these slots to qualify for Tokyo. Here, we look back on the fierce battles put up by the jumpers of the tournament in particular.

Maya Nakanishi of Women’s Long Jump (T64)

“Of course I want to win. Watch me beat all of you.”
Nakanishi, standing at the start line on the runway for her final jump, had a bullish attitude.

Her goal for the Para Athletics Championships was a slightly reserved one—4th place—especially with her greatest rival not in attendance, and when she was at a place where she could win the gold medal if she jumped her personal best of 5.51 meters. In the stands was her trusted coach, Daisuke Arakawa. This was it—the moment where she would overcome the various setbacks she’d experienced, and make all of her effort worth it.

Looking back, her journey to this point had been a tough one. At the Beijing 2008 Paralympic Games, she’d performed well enough to get to the finals for both of her events, but had said, frustrated, “I don’t want people to think it was easy for me to get into the Paralympics.” And at the London 2012 Paralympic Games, she’d bowed under the immense pressure placed on her, finishing in 8th place and declaring her retirement from the sport. There was even a time when she ran out of money to spend on the sport, and had had to give up on competing in the Para Athletics Championships. Even with all of that she stood up again, driven by her wish, “I want to jump 6 meters.”

In this tournament, she jumped a season best of 5.10 meters in her first attempt, getting a series of stable results amidst considerable headwind, going into her final jump in 4th place, making a dramatic comeback victory with 5.37 meters. The sight of her pumping her fists with all her might post-victory was broadcast live on TV, despite it being the middle of the night in Japan.

“Everything I did, I did it for this day,” she said, smiling exuberantly
©Getty Images Sport

“I believed that one day, I would see the light of day. I was working for so long, just struggling to win that gold medal, and I’ve finally got it.”

Nakanishi has made a lot of changes this year, starting with teaming up with Coach Arakawa, with whom she says she “gets along really well,” trying out prosthetic legs of various shapes and levels of hardness—through a contract she signed with a prosthetic leg manufacturer—and even switching to a new prosthetic leg. All of these had led to her results in this tournament. World champion Nakanishi, now with a newfound confidence towards her goal of the 6-meter jump, will head into her fourth Paralympic Games in 2020.

Atsushi Yamamoto of Men’s Long Jump (T63)

The Men’s Long Jump (Above-Knee Prosthesis) event was held at such a high level as to be almost unprecedented. With Rio gold medalist Heinrich Popow (Germany) retired, it was younger athletes like Léon Schäfer (Germany), world record holder at 6.99 meters, Daniel Wagner Jørgensen (Denmark), with a record of 6.72 meters—beating Atsushi Yamamoto’s record of 6.70 meters—that bolstered their records in the event.

Though Yamamoto’s record of 6.40 meters in this tournament fell short of his personal best, he managed to come in 3rd place, after the two mentioned above. With this, he was able to claim a spot in his fourth consecutive Paralympic Games. “I was able to achieve my bare-minimum goal of coming in in the top four and qualifying for the Tokyo Paralympics,” he said, looking satisfied with his performance.

The reason why he hadn’t performed better was clear. “I haven’t been able to get my speed back [since coming back to the sport after the surgery on his left shoulder in 2018].” What with the pain from his hip injury in the summer as well, he spent the latter half of the event unable to beat his first few jumps. “It was a complete failure in terms of adjustment. I need to think more about how to deal with injuries.”

At the Rio Paralympic Games three years ago, where he’d won a silver medal, he’d been able to jump his personal best.

“I want to make adjustments leading towards [the Paralympics in] August 29 so that I can perform to the absolute best of my ability.”

Yamamoto, in this fiercest of battles for the gold medal, will “reset” his journey with the goal of a 7-meter jump.

Yamamoto was unable to beat the Asia record he’d set in May, but managed to achieve his bare-minimum goal
©takao ochi

Kaede Maegawa of Women’s Long Jump (T63)

“With Rio I got lucky. This time I worked for four years to qualify, and it’s just completely different”
©Getty Images Sport

Tomomi Tozawa and Kaede Maegawa gained shared attention and anticipation last season as Long Jump medal contenders. These two, each of whom has a prosthetic leg, both managed to qualify for the Tokyo Paralympic Games at this tournament.

Maegawa, who came in 4th—the minimum qualification result—said, her eyes shining, “Today I was able to put to use everything I’ve done in my training. It’s been the most fun day of my life.”

In this most important of stages, she had jumped a personal best of 4.13 meters. “During matches I become a different person. Until now I’d always get nervous and tense up.” After coming to Dubai, she’d spoken to Coach Kumiko Ikeda about her worries and also paid more careful attention to her own feelings, facing her own nerves and eventually overcoming them. Although this doesn’t mean she’s satisfied, of course, adding, “I did want to do a bit better.”

Tozawa, who came in ahead of Maegawa, won a bronze medal with only two and a half years of competitive experience.
“Tomomi [Tozawa] was also working so hard. But I can’t keep losing to her. I want to catch up to her, become better than her.”

At the Tokyo Paralympic Games, her goal will be to do better than the 4th place she got in Rio.

Tomomi Tozawa of Women’s Long Jump (T63)

Tozawa, on the other hand, had won a medal in her very first Para Athletics Championships. “I was aiming to do better,” she said, however, expressing frustration at her performance.

The theme of her performance had been “aggressiveness.” This was something she’d been told many times by Popow, an advisor of Japan national para athletics team and a Rio Paralympic Games gold medalist and someone on whom she placed complete trust. Even when she felt she was giving all she could, he’d say, “Still not enough.” The whole time—learning how to train, how to discover her maximum possible speed, how to control herself mentally and emotionally, and even after arriving in Dubai—Popow had told her, “Be aggressive!” Even in the past, Tozawa had often contacted Popow via social media to ask him questions, learn from him. With these words from her coach, she’d worked to maintain her all-in mindset, and had worked to adjust her attitude to that of Popow.

――Something needed to change for her to be able to beat her own record. After jumping 4.33 meters at the beginning of the day, Tozawa—taking her cue from Popow—decided to go aggressive from her fourth attempt. She ran faster and made some changes to her runup, but in the end wasn’t able to beat her own record. “It was pretty difficult,” she said, grimacing, after the match. Her expression, however, seemed to convey a sense of satisfaction with her performance as a whole.

“I’m very relieved,” Tozawa said after the event was over; she’ll head into the Tokyo Paralympic Games with this 3rd place status
©takao ochi

Tozawa, who says she “has worked her hardest for this tournament since entering university,” also came in 6th, with a time of 16.39 seconds, in the 100m event held the next day. Still a university student, Tozawa thus finished off the tournament by beating the Asia record she had set in June in Germany. She’ll now train and work even harder towards the Tokyo Paralympic Games—the driving force behind why she had started the sport in the first place.

text by Asuka Senaga
key visual by Takao Ochi

* See here for Part 2 of this article:
The Para Athletics Championships as Their Ticket to the Paralympics (Part 2)

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