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Blind Swimmer Uchu Tomita: What He Wants to Prove at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games

“There’s so much I can still get better at.” So said Uchu Tomita (S11/visual impairment), silver medalist of the 400m Freestyle and 100m Butterfly events at the 2019 World Para Swimming Championships, in a frank, open tone. His whole life had been a series of major changes. Diagnosed at the age of 16 with a progressive eye disease, he’d had to give up for a time on his dream of getting into a space-related occupation, and even on his competitive swimming career, which had taken up most of his time as a student. And after working long and hard towards a new personal record in para swimming, he suddenly received word that he’d be switched to a new, heavier-impairment class. And now, the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games—where he is thought to be a medal contender—has been postponed. We asked Tomita, a swimming “late-bloomer” who has experienced all sorts of change in his life, what he has to say at this point in his life.
(Interview conducted remotely in late April.)

Lessons from His Very First World Championships

The World Para Swimming Championships was held in September 2019 in London. This was an important race—a preliminary for the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games. Tomita, having overcome an injury in the first half of the season, competed in four events. In the 100m Butterfly event, fellow Japanese swimmer Keiichi Kimura and Tomita came in first and second respectively, in an incredible achievement for Japan. However, though Tomita went into the 400m Freestyle event ranked No. 1 in the world, he lost to Rogier Dorsman of the Netherlands, who at the time was ranked No. 2.

Uchu Tomita (left), who came in 2nd in the 400m Freestyle event, and Rogier Dorsman (center), who came in first

Uchu Tomita (hereafter “Tomita”): The World Para Swimming Championships was my first major tournament, so I just think I wasn’t able to perform as well as I wanted to. It was the most nervous I’d ever been in my career. All of the other tournaments, I considered a part of my training. But the number-one priority in the world championships is to get results. So I spent more time than I’d ever spent peaking for the day of the race. That actually made it so my body worked too well—better than it’d ever moved before—and I wasn’t able to control my swimming very well. Winning two silver medals might be considered a passing mark, but if I’m being honest, I did want a gold medal.

Indeed, Tomita’s remarks immediately after the races revealed his frustration at his own performance. “It wasn’t good.” “I could’ve done better.” Though with the frustration, he said, also came another emotion.

Tomita: There were a lot of swimmers who were just incredibly appealing—not just as athletes, but as people. And it was honestly just fun to race with them. The top foreign swimmers seemed like they were enjoying the sport from the bottom of their hearts. They didn’t seem to feel much pressure, maybe because they considered swimming just another activity in their life, even if they did place some weight on it. They had these full lives right alongside the development of their swimming careers, so they could keep up their motivation, and that’s what led them to results. Seeing the way they lived, made me want to race with these kinds of athletes even more.

- I want to race even better against the rivals I had in the world championships. -
After returning to Japan, Tomita reconsidered various aspects of his training. He left the Swimming Club at Nippon Sport Science University, which had served as his base of training, and began training under Takumi Uegaki, the current coach for the Japan national team. He has been working to improve his physicality and swimming form in preparation for Tokyo 2020.

Tomita (left; right is Keiichi Kimura) swimming in the World Para Swimming Championships

Tomita: In terms of the way I swim, it’d be harder to find parts that I haven’t changed since then. For example, I’m training right now to boost the propulsion I get from each stroke. So before, I used smaller strokes and focused on the speed of these strokes to go faster. Now, I’m shifting to using bigger strokes, a more relaxed form, to go faster.

As a result, the number of strokes I need every 50 meters has gone down a lot. In terms of feel, it’s more about grabbing the water with my core, instead of grabbing at it with my hands and feet. During the stay-at-home request, I’ve used resistance bands at home to practice these movements, and of course I’ve been following this new form.

Communicating the Unique Appeal of the Paralympic Games

Tomita says he wants to show people the depth of parasports through his own sport.

Tomita, having experienced the world championships, said “Swimming is more fun now”

Tomita: If the Olympic Games require people to work from 0 to 100, then parasports is all about going from -100 to 100. It’s a different journey, and so I think there’s an entirely different appeal when you compare it to the Olympic Games.

It’s not just about the “adding on,” the part that comes after the 0. I think, if you were to look at para athletes as they went from -100 to 0, you’d really be able to see the depth of these athletes. The struggles they faced, the difficulties they’ve experienced in society. I think, if we could keep our eyes open to that depth, and communicate it to people as just the range of experiences in people’s lives, we could get better at conveying what makes parasports truly interesting.

The now-delayed Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games is set to begin on August 24, 2021. Tomita, will be 32 years old. “It’s getting hard physically,” he said, with a wry smile. But his goals remain unchanged.

Tomita: My motivation comes from feeling myself get better at things, and swimming is one of the methods through which I do that. I can’t go to the pool as much as I want to during this stay-at-home request, but there’s plenty I still need to work on skill-wise, and I want to make sure that this extra year will be a positive thing for me. I want to make Tokyo 2020 a stage where I can test my own growth. And if that ultimately wins me a medal, then that’d be absolutely amazing.

One year, and a cycle of trial and error and improvement. How will Tomita perform up on that most visible of stages, and what will he communicate to the public? Blind swimmer Uchu Tomita’s words are full of energy. And in the summer of 2021, he as a para athlete will represent Japan on that world stage.

text by TEAM A
photo by X-1

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