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[Preliminaries for Japan Boccia Championships] Preliminaries Highlight Performance of Young Athletes

The preliminaries for the 18th Japan Boccia Championships, which is scheduled to be held in November in Ishikawa Prefecture, were held for two days starting July 9 at the Sports Cultural Center of the Yamaguchi Prefectural Ishin Hyakunen Memorial Park. There were league matches for each class, and the winners of each league qualified for the Japan Championships. Furthermore, classes that have fewer leagues than the number of slots available held playoffs between second-place players of each league, and the winners gained qualification for the championships.

Sato (BC2) and others who aim for the Tokyo Paralympics qualified for the championships

The preliminaries for the 18th Japan Boccia Championships highlighted the performance of young athletes

There were 122 participants in the tournament, excluding athletes already seeded in the championship games. All athletes in each class showed performances worthy of the Japan championship preliminaries. Among all athletes, the younger generation in their teens and early twenties garnered particular attention.

First we would like to introduce Shun Sato (T.S.T. Boccia Club), a 20-year-old university student in the BC2 class. His goal is to participate in the Tokyo Paralympic Games four years from now. Under the watchful eyes of team coach Takayuki Hirose, Japanese representative for the Rio Paralympics, Sato took first place in his league with an overwhelming performance of three wins and zero losses. He was obviously on a roll, apparent from his "war cry fist pump" as each of his well-calculated plays added up.

High-level competition is expected for the BC2 class at the Japan Championships, with top players like Hirose and Hidetaka Sugimura, also a Japanese representative for the Rio Games. However, Sato has also gained experience in tournaments inside and outside of Japan. "Getting the first ball (thrown after the jack) as close to the jack (the target ball) as possible is key to ranking high," he analyzes. He also showed ambition towards getting a medal, saying, "I hope to improve accuracy and use my skills tactically."

In the BC3 class, which uses an assistive ramp, 21-year-old Kaede Matsunaga (Team kokoro) and 14-year-old Asuka Owada (Saitama Boccia Club) had complete victories. Their games were impressive with minimal errors and great teamwork with the assistants.

Matsunaga (left) of the BC3 class

Owada of the BC3 class

In the BC4 class, Shun Esaki (Aichi Boccia Association), a 2016 Boccia Association certified player, and Wataru Furumitsu (Ryu HIROSHIMA), a 2016 Boccia Association candidate for training, qualified for the championships. A playoff determined the third and final qualifier, 14-year-old Yuta Watanabe (Shizuoka Boccia Association), who played well as the audience watched. It was Watanabe's first time to participate in the preliminaries, and he said with a smile, "I was nervous and tense the first day, so I couldn't control my strength. But I'm relieved that I won in the end." He also showed ambition, saying, "By November I hope to overcome my weak areas, which I learned at these preliminaries, and aim for a spot on the podium."

In the BC1 class, favorites Yuko Matsumoto (Tama Kokona) and Ayumi Kinjo (Okinawa Boccia Club) smoothly gained qualification to the championships.

The open wheelchair class showcased the talents of up-and-coming top player Risa Ohama (Urayasu Boccia Association), who qualified with complete victory. Ohama was the 2011 Japanese champion at age 14, and is now 19. It seems she still continues to hone her skills.

Four players were qualified in the open standing class: Jun Fujii (Toyama Boccia Club), Kinuyo Ide (Shizuoka Boccia Association), Maki Ishimoto (Niigata Fureai Boccia Club) and Masataka Koga (Shiga Prefecture Boccia Association).

Preliminaries will be held in western and eastern blocks starting next year

In the game of boccia, it can be exciting to watch the players' skills in landing the ball on target, and the meticulous strategies that can turn the tables with the very last throw. It is a popular universal sport that anyone can try, regardless of age or gender. More and more players are participating in tournaments. According to the Japan Boccia Association, the number of registered members increased from 460 the year before last to 510 last year. Not only new players, but also new referees and assistants, have joined.

Ohama (left) in the open wheelchair class

Two teams participated in the preliminaries for the first time. Apowa Boccia Club experienced class divisions for the first time. Kazuaki Saito was the youngest player this time at 13 years old. Although he unfortunately did not qualify, he showed a bold performance until the very end under the encouraging cheers of his club mates. From the Hakata Boccia Club, which was established in 2014 with the objective of cultivating Paralympic athletes out of Fukuoka, ten players entered all classes except the open standing class. One of the club members said, "Participating in this event helped me better understand my own level. The exchange with the other players was very stimulating."

Shunji Kawai, Athletic Director of the Japan Boccia Association, gave a commentary after the games. "The rise of a new generation of young players is stimulating for top national players. Let us all create a boccia movement towards Tokyo and beyond."

Furthermore, due to the increase of participants, the preliminaries will be separated into western and eastern blocks starting next year. This will make travelling to venues relatively easier, and encourage more participation. We expect to see more attention on the Japanese boccia world, which is expanding while simultaneously adapting to changes.

text&photos by Miharu Araki
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