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Kakeru Ishida on His Sprint to the Gold Medal: Para Athletics Brought “Just Miracle After Miracle”

Kakeru Ishida competed in national tournaments for the men’s 400m in junior high and high school, and went into Aichi Gakuin University in 2018 with the dream of making it to the All Japan Inter University Track & Field Championships. This would all change, however, with the osteosarcoma discovered in his left upper arm immediately after he started school. Ishida would go on to start para athletics in December 2018, eventually getting to the point where he was a medal contender for the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games. Looking back on those turbulent days, Ishida tells us, “It was just miracle after miracle.”

Competing in Japan’s Junior High and High School Championships

Ishida, who was named Kakeru (Japanese for “dash”) by his father Masami, a former athletics athlete, joined the athletics team in junior high, and began competing in the 400m sprint. This event, which requires significant mental fortitude, was a strangely good fit for Ishida’s personality. He competed in the All Japan Junior High School Sports Festival, then, in his days at Gifu Shotoku Gakuen High School, the Inter-High School Championships. He got into Aichi Gakuin University on recommendation, and went into the school in spring 2018 with the goal of competing in the All Japan Inter University Track & Field Championships—what he imagined would be the culmination of his entire career in athletics.

Kakeru Ishida (hereafter “Ishida”): I’d competed in national tournaments through junior high and high school, so I was thinking I’d compete in the university championships, then retire from the sport. But in May, right after I’d entered university, I found out about the illness. I was practicing my arm swing, and noticed a weird feeling in my upper left shoulder. I looked, and found this lump. I got it looked at, and it turns out it was an osteosarcoma. At the time, I was just devastated—completely and utterly. I heard later that my parents cried about it too, in secret.

The surgery, which involved removing the muscles around the shoulders and installing artificial joints, took 13 hours. Luckily, it had been a rare type of tumor with little risk of recurrence, meaning there wasn’t a need to amputate, but still—he couldn’t move his left arm the same way as his right anymore.

Ishida: When you do athletics… and especially the 400m, which is a really tough event, a lot of athletes actually look forward to retiring, in some ways. I was like that too. But now that I couldn’t run all of a sudden, I wanted so badly to keep doing it. So I worked really hard at rehab, and went back to training at university six months later, in December. It was also around then that I joined the Gifu Para-Athlete Club.

After the surgery, Ishida’s father had suggested that he get into para athletics. But when Ishida watched the Japan Para Athletics Championships for the first time in September, he didn’t feel the same kind of passion that he felt towards competing in the All Japan Inter University Track & Field Championships.

Ishida: There were all these people with different handicaps doing all these great things. But I thought, you know, there aren’t very many people that play parasports competitively, and at the time I didn’t even really think of myself as someone with an impairment, so I didn’t really feel inclined to compete in that kind of tournament.

His attitude towards parasports, however, would gradually begin to change.

Ishida: It was the people around me that pushed for it, telling me I could compete in the Paralympic Games for sure if I had a personal best of 48.68 seconds, telling me I could get a Japan record even just in my current state. And over time I started being more motivated to do it.

Ishida spends his days training in the athletics team at Aichi Gakuin University

A Striking Para Debut

So he set his sights high, and in June 2019 made his “para debut” at the Japan Para Athletics Championships. His time in the 400m event (Class T46/unilateral upper limb impairment) was a Japan record of 50.39 seconds. He did even better in the Japan Para Championships a month later, with a time of 11.18 seconds in the 100m, and 49.89 seconds in the 400m—another Japan record. Incredibly, his time in the 100m was better than his personal best when he was able-bodied. His time in the 100m qualified him for deployment to the 2019 World Para Athletics Championships in Dubai in November, and became the catalyst for Ishida’s path to the rest of the world. This was also the day when Ishida began thinking of himself as representing Japan out in the world stage.

Ishida: I’d gone my whole life only being able to compete in these national tournaments, and now all of a sudden I’m competing with the rest of the world… It just felt weird, really weird, for me to be representing Japan in any way. But with the Japan Para Championships, I started seeing a path for myself to compete in the Tokyo Paralympics, and I also learned, in the World Para Athletics Championships, that there were people out there who were rooting for me. I thought to myself, my goal now is to compete at the highest level in the world, so I have to really get down and work hard for it.

It wasn’t all sunshine and roses, however. At the World Para Athletics Championships, he came in 5th in the 400m, and was eliminated in the semi-finals in the 100m. Most frustrating for him was his performance in the 400m, which he considered his “main” event. The four highest-ranking athletes were awarded a spot at the Tokyo Paralympic Games. He’d just barely missed the cut-off.

Ishida: I’d wanted to qualify in Dubai and try to win a gold medal at Tokyo 2020… That being said, though, a time of 49.44 seconds isn’t bad, and I’m currently ranked 5th in the Tokyo 2020 qualification rankings*, so I still firmly believe that I’ll get there. Right now, I’m working to beat the personal best I had in high school, which is 48.68 seconds. I’m limited in how I can move my arm, but if I can work on the muscles in the lower half of my body, I’ll be able to get more force off of the ground, and my time should start to get better.

*At the time this article was posted, the rules stated that a maximum of two athletes within the top 6 of the rankings on April 1, 2020, excluding those who had already qualified, would automatically qualify to compete in the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games.

Two Goals for His Days in University

If Ishida is able to beat his personal best at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games, he’ll be within range of a medal. Ishida’s goal, however, is a singular one—gold medal or bust. His fixation has to do with the dream he had when he first entered university, a dream that still exists within him even now.

Ishida: My goal, still, is to compete in the All Japan Inter University Track & Field Championship. The No. 1 ranked person in the world has a time of 47.87 seconds, and the qualification standard for the university championships is 47.20 seconds. That’s why I want to beat this person’s record in Tokyo, and have the time also fulfill the standard for the university championships. I won’t be satisfied until I’m able to compete in the university championships. Even Atsushi Yamamoto [who’s been at the front lines of para athletics for a very long time now] has told me, “That’s where your goal will be.”

Ishida is no longer thinking of ending his athletics career in university. His dream extends far into the future, with the 2021 World Para Athletics Championships in Kobe and Paris 2024. Ishida says that the drastic changes in his journey are a result of “just miracle after miracle.”

Ishida: If I had a time machine, I’d want to go back and tell junior-high or high school me that this is what I’d be doing in university [laughs]. I’d tell him, you’ll go through some tough stuff as a first-year in university, but after that, your life will open up in ways you would never have expected. New challenges, new people… People can all of a sudden get ill, have new impairments, but there’s a new, different life that can evolve beyond that.

text by Yoshimi Suzuki
photo by Hiroaki Yoda

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