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Able-Bodied… Paralympians?: The Able-Bodied Assistants That Can Win Medals in the Paralympic Games

Turns out, it’s not just para-athletes that compete in the Paralympic Games. There are those who are able-bodied who dive into these battles right alongside them. Here, we discuss the roles that can win able-bodied people medals—that is, if they can get up on the winners’ podium.

Saving Goals and… Describing the Field?:
Goalkeepers in Football-5-a-Side (Blind Soccer)

Daisuke Sato protecting the Japan team’s goal in the IBSA Blind Football World Grand Prix 2019

In football-5-a-side (blind soccer), the only player who doesn’t wear an eye mask is the goalkeeper (GK). While the players on the field play in a state of total blindness, GKs are sighted people, or those with weak vision.

For the players on the field, who rely on sound, voices, etc., to play, the GK’s instructions are a lifeline. In fact, GKs in blind soccer are responsible not only for preventing goals, but also for providing the players on the field detailed information about the locations of their team members and players on the opposing team, the distance between various players, and more. Because knowing the players makes it easier to communicate information to them, it’s important that GKs spend a lot of time with their team. And they do, working on their combinations in day-to-day training and training camps, and even around the dinner table.

Tokyo 2020 will be the first time that a Japan national blind soccer team will compete in the Paralympic Games, and competition is fierce for the role of GK, with former professional GKs from J.League, etc., all competing for the spot. The top choice, however, seems to be Daisuke Sato, who has represented Japan since 2008, and who has competed in important international tournaments for the team. Sato, a 36-year old who normally works as a nursery school teacher and who goes by the nickname “Gori,” had experience playing as a GK in elementary, junior high, and high school. He leveraged this experience to build a name for himself in blind soccer, which he started playing as a student, competing in two world championships and earning the complete trust of his team members.

Reading Faces to Gauge the Match
Assistants in Boccia

33-year old Taoda, who began playing boccia for the first time about ten years ago at the invitation of a student, has actually been playing boccia for longer than Takahashi (Photo: Japan national boccia team training camp)

There’s a position wherein an able-bodied player could aim to win a medal in the Paralympic Games—the assistants for the BC3 Class, a class of boccia players who cannot throw the balls on their own. These assistants adjust the direction (angle), length, height, etc., of the ramp*1 used to release the ball, according to the instructions of the player. They sit with their backs to the court, and are not permitted to look at the court, or even talk to the player, during the match. Their job is to set up the ramp based solely on the player’s instructions (as well as any additional intent they can pick up on), and within a limited time frame, execute the perfect “throw.”
*1. ramp: A slide-like tool that allows players to roll the ball onto the court

There is one assistant who has given his all to the pursuit of this home-country Paralympic Games. Yushiro Taoda, who plays with Kazuki Takahashi, a member of the Japan national team for the Rio Paralympic Games. In March 2019, he quit his job as a teacher at a special education school so he could spend the bulk of his time training for boccia. He assists Takahashi in his daily life while the two of them train together, both working towards winning a medal at Tokyo 2020.

Swimming, Cycling, and Running Right Alongside the Triathletes
Guides in Triathlon

Triathlon, which became an official Paralympic sport at the Rio Paralympic Games, is a sport that sees a variety of para-athletes, from those on wheelchairs to those with prosthetic legs. In the class for visual impairment, triathletes compete along with able-bodied guides, who are then able to join the triathletes on the winners’ podium, and win medals right alongside them. The number of people competing in triathlon has been on the rise in Japan, and if you’re a triathlete, you’ve perhaps seen paratriathletes and their supporters competing in the same tournaments.

In tournaments, guides for visually-impaired athletes must be of the same gender—a rule that can lead to difficulty in finding a guide (Photo: Rio 2016 Paralympic Games)

Guides for the visual impairment class compete in the event alongside the triathlete, supporting their transitions*2 and riding with them on tandem bikes (bikes that seat two people) with a rope connecting them together. Because all of this must be accomplished by the same guide, with no time at all to rest, the guides themselves must have a level of stamina and competitive ability that rivals that of their counterparts.
*2. Transition support: Helping the triathlete take off their wetsuit, shoes, helmet, prosthetics, etc., between the events, handing them food/drink during the race, etc.

Becoming a Part of the Cyclist
Pilots in Cycling

The pilot maneuvers the handlebars, and the stoker serves as the engine driving the bike forward (Photo: Rio 2016 Paralympic Games)

In cycling, athletes in the B Class form tandem-bike pairs comprised of an athlete with visual impairment (the stoker, who sits in the back), and a sighted athlete (the pilot, who sits in front).

In addition to the leg power required to complete the race, pilots must also have the skill and the decision-making ability to match the stoker’s movements. And because a tiny mistake in just a fraction of a second can affect their time, the more in-sync the pair are, the better. Overseas, and particularly in Europe, where cycling sports are very popular, it is not uncommon for top cyclists—including Olympians and those who have competed in able-bodied world championships—to participate as pilots in the Paralympic Games, and in fact, many of these cyclists are eager to do so.

In recent years, top cyclists in Japan, including professional cyclists, have also begun serving as pilots for para-athletes. Of these pilots, one was able to win an actual medal—Mai Tanaka, serving as the pilot for Yurie Kanuma. Tanaka, a professional cyclist, had been asked in 2013, before her professional debut, to be Kanuma’s pilot. Though she accepted the offer at the time, she later found it difficult to balance her pilot training with her own career as a professional cyclist. After putting a pause on her professional career and focusing on her training for the Paralympic Games, she—alongside Kanuma—was able to win a silver medal in the Road Time Trial event at Rio 2016.

One Race, Two (or Three) Runners in Sync
Escort runners in Para Athletics

Michishita celebrated with her escort runners after crossing the finish line and securing her silver medal in the Women’s Marathon event at the Rio Paralympic Games

See athletes with visual impairments at athletics events, and you’ll often see them alongside an accompanying runner, called an escort runner. The Tokyo Paralympic Games requires visually-impaired runners to have escort runners for track events from 100m to 5,000m, and the 42.195km marathon, with runners in the T11 (blind to under 20/8000) Class required to have escort runners for all of their events. For races that are 5,000m or over, runners are permitted to have two escort runners, with the two able to switch partway through. The runner and the escort runner both hold onto a ring of rope (string) as they run, with the escort runner calling out their lap times and detailed descriptions of the road, for example “45 degree curve to the right in 10 meters,” “Stepping down a 15cm curb,” etc., and pulling and loosening their hold on the rope to guide the runner in the right direction. In addition to maintaining the sufficient level of running and guiding ability, escort runners must also keep a close eye on their day-to-day lifestyles, as they are required to take the same anti-doping tests as the runners themselves.

Paralympians are, of course, the star of the Paralympic Games. But being able-bodied doesn’t automatically mean you’re exempt from representing Japan in the Paralympic Games. Once the novel coronavirus outbreak recedes and the various parasport tournaments return, we hope you turn your eyes to the performance of these able-bodied athletes as well.

text by TEAM A
photo by X-1

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