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The Para Athletics Championships as Their Ticket to the Paralympics (Part 2)

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.

Toru Suzuki of Men’s High Jump (T64)

Suzuki, who says his issue is with his center of gravity when he goes into the jump, said, “When I get back to Japan, I want to try the prosthetic legs they use for long jump”

Currently, there is only one high-jumper in the entire world that can jump 2 meters with a prosthetic leg. This person is Toru Suzuki. Though he achieved a record of 2.02 meters in May 2016, he’d finished 4th in the Rio Paralympic Games in September of the same year, with a record of 1.95 meters. Due to this and other experiences, this long-time athlete knows not to get too caught up in his immediate performance. What with his injury from the new prosthetic leg he’d gotten this year, he’d spent this season training slowly but surely, before heading into the Para Athletics Championships.

The Long Jump event for the T64-44 Class had come under review after the Para Athletics Championships due to the relative lack of athletes competing in the class. For the event to retain its status, there would need to be a minimum of six athletes competing from three countries. Suzuki used social media to encourage athletes to compete from all over the world.

“I was a little worried before I left for the tournament whether we’d have enough people competing,” said Suzuki.
In the end, however, there were nine athletes competing in the event at the Para Athletics Championships, and it was announced this December that it would be an official medal event for the Tokyo Paralympic Games. He jumped 1.92 meters in this tournament, winning a bronze medal despite the intense competition in the event, and officially qualifying for the Tokyo Paralympic Games Japan national team.

“With more people competing, the whole event can be decided by a matter of centimeters. It really felt like I was competing, and it was fun.”

This will be his sixth time in a row competing in the Paralympic Games. He wasn’t necessarily exuberant at qualifying for Tokyo 2020, saying, “I want to see how far I can go [even after Tokyo].” In a show of his extraordinary athletic spirit, he added, “It’s the only place where I can wipe out my frustrations from Rio.”

“Use a prosthetic leg well, and you can still jump 2 meters. That’s what I want to show everyone.”

In 2020, he aims to clear that 2-meter bar amidst the roaring of the crowd at the New National Stadium.

Gurimu Narita of Men’s High Jump (T44)

“I still have things I need to improve, but my jump-off has gotten a lot better”
©takao ochi

The High Jump event was held in a combined class with the T64 Class (Below-Knee Prosthesis). Many of the athletes started with jumps below 1.5 meters, and the overall atmosphere of the event was “very nice,” said Toru Suzuki, with everyone cheering each other on. As jumper after jumper set new personal records, Gurimu Narita of the T44 (Lower Limb Impairment) Class jumped 1.84 meters, then went on to attempt 1.88 meters—a height that would surpass his own Japan record of 1.86 meters by 2 centimeters. Though he was ultimately unable to make the jump, the snowboard gold medalist of the PyeongChang 2018 Paralympic Winter Games smiled and said, “I’ve competed in world championships many times in the winter, but this is my first time competing in the summer. I’m proud to have been able to jump as part of the Japan national team.”

It’s the “Gurimu style” to stray away from the way things are usually done. Narita, who said that his ankles hurt when he wore cleats in the past, decided not to wear cleats in this tournament, mostly out of a sense of curiosity. “I wondered what would happen if I didn’t wear them. I like the motto, ‘Throwing something away is the first step towards revolution.’ It may lead to something good, it may lead to complete failure, but you won’t know until you try it.” This time around, his lack of cleats meant he slipped a bit when he came to top speed. But he was able to jump comfortably.

He came in 6th, meaning he wasn’t able to qualify for the Tokyo Paralympic Games in this tournament. Narita, who has spent the past year living a largely high jump-centered life, said, “It’s not like I’m doing this just to compete in the Tokyo Paralympics,” but then added, “Of course my goal is to compete in the Paralympics in the summer as well. I don’t know if I’ll be able to do this for Tokyo. But I do think I’m evolving at 100%, 120% speed.”

Chiaki Takada of Women’s Long Jump (T11)

“She doesn’t need to really bloom until next year. It’d be good for her to qualify for the Tokyo Paralympics as soon as possible and spend next year training my in-air movements [which have potential for growth]—slowly but surely—instead of flying around to lots of tournaments overseas.”

Shigekazu Omori, Chiaki Takada’s guide, had this wish come true in this tournament. Even Coach Kumiko Imura, who was once a famed long-jumper, commended Takada’s growth and her burgeoning record, saying, “She’s started to jump very well, like a true long-jumper.” To go for a medal at the Tokyo Paralympic Games, however, she will need to improve and refine her movements.

“She has speed, but tends to falter at the jump-off, which slows her down” said Omori, analyzing her performance
©Getty Images Sport

The Para Athletics Championships in this sense was very important for Takada. She jumped 4.65 meters in her first jump, all of a sudden beating her own Japan record of 4.60 meters. And in her sixth and final jump, she marked 4.69 meters, bolstering her record even further and coming in 4th—qualifying for the Tokyo Paralympic Games.

Takada herself still seemed frustrated with her performance, however. “I had a good average, but not a single jump that really stood out. My son was here cheering me on, and I’m sad that I can’t put a medal around his neck. But I did qualify for the Tokyo Paralympics, so maybe the world is telling me to save my best performance until Tokyo.”

The true battle for blind jumper Takada has just now begun.

Hajimu Ashida of Men’s Long Jump (T47)

Hajimu Ashida’s goal for this tournament, which he had set for himself, was to jump 7.30 meters or more. A fitting goal, perhaps, for someone who has declared that his goal for the Tokyo Paralympic Games is to win gold. In the end, however, he was only able to jump 6.85 meters, coming in 6th place. His record seemed to tell the story of his experience all season—more specifically his struggle with injury and maladjustment.

He’d put more effort into his runup in order to combat the headwind, but this in turn had thrown off his rhythm
©takao ochi

Perhaps his focus had been too much on setting a good record.
“I tried too hard in the first jump, and it was only on the sixth jump that I really started to get into the rhythm of my movements. In athletics, it’s often the case that when someone subjectively feels they’re trying really hard, their movements objectively don’t look that great. The 6.85 meters I was able to get in my sixth attempt was a number I should’ve actually gotten in my first attempt. This is my weakness. It’s very frustrating.”

Coming in 3rd in the Asian Para Games last year had left him with a sense of crisis, and seeking change, he’d gone to Australia to train with a new coach. Though his experiences there were meaningful, they weren’t able to bear fruit on this world stage. “I wanted to qualify for Tokyo here in Dubai, so I’ll need to change my strategy going forward. I’ll compete in international tournaments, partly for training, and try to jump further than just about anyone else in the world.”

One thing to watch out for will be whether the athletes who weren’t able to qualify for 2020 in this tournament will be able to come within the top 6 in the world rankings, qualifying for Tokyo in this way.

▼ Dubai 2019 Para Athletics Championships
See here for the results for Japanese athletes

text by Asuka Senaga
key visual by Takao Ochi

* See here for Part 1 of this article:
The Para Athletics Championships as Their Ticket to the Paralympics (Part 1)

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