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Resilience, Resilience, Resilience: What We Can Learn from Paralympians About Overcoming Struggle

There is a phrase that embodies the essence of the Paralympic Games, one that Dr. Ludwig Guttman, known as the father of the Paralympic Games, held near and dear to his heart.

“It is ability, not disability that counts.”

This is something that Paralympians worldwide have shown through their performances in various sports.

What with the novel coronavirus outbreak, many of us right now are experiencing some level of despair, some level of isolation. It is because we are in these times that we would like to introduce you to some para-athletes—people who have overcome difficulty through resilience, and who are still, and always, evolving, ready to push past their own limits.

15 Paralympic Gold Medals, and The Ups and Downs of Mayumi Narita

Mayumi Narita, one of Japan’s most famous Paralympians (Photo: Athens 2004 Paralympic Games)

One such athlete, who has forever carved her name into the world of para swimming, is Mayumi Narita. Narita has competed in five Paralympic Games and won a total of 20 medals, including 15 gold medals. Even now, she is one of the best female para-athletes in Japan, battling it out at the highest levels of the world stage, with the goal of competing in the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games.

According to Narita, she hadn’t liked swimming as a child. She had developed transverse myelitis and begun using a wheelchair at the age of 13, and started swimming at 23. So it seems incredible that she had then worked her way up to be a stand-out athlete on the international stage. Her story, however, didn’t end there.

Narita had won gold medals in three consecutive Paralympic Games (Atlanta, Sydney, and Athens). At Beijing 2008, however, she came away from the Games with not a single medal. It wasn’t that her time had suddenly gotten a lot worse, or that she’d suddenly been faced with a wave of tough rivals. It was because of a class change. The classification process for Beijing, meant to maintain as much fair competition as possible by dividing athletes into different classes for different types and levels of impairment, had put her in the S5 Class—a class for those of lighter impairment than the S4 Class she had been assigned in the past. The differences between these classes are significant. For example, the current world records for the shortest-distance/shortest-time event, the Women’s 50m Freestyle, are 37.87 seconds for the S4 Class, and 35.88 seconds for the S5 Class—a difference of approximately two seconds, despite such a short distance. In other words, being placed into a lighter-impairment class can ramp up the competitive level to the point where you can barely even match up against your rivals.

After that, she put a pause on her swimming career for a while, returning to the sport seven years later in 2015. Her time qualified her for the Rio Paralympic Games, where she came in 5th in the 50m Freestyle event. Currently 49 years old, she is putting herself through tough training so she can continue setting new records.

Summer/Winter Paralympian Yurie Kanuma and Her Forever Journey

Yurie Kanuma, who grew up in Machida City, Tokyo, was born with a visual impairment, but always loved to exercise.

Kanuma had always been fascinated by the Paralympic Games. At the age of 25, she began cross-country skiing, known as “marathons on snow,” training in Japan and overseas, and eventually competing in the Vancouver Paralympic Winter Games in 2010. She left Vancouver happy to have fulfilled her dream, but frustrated that she hadn’t been able to get on the winner’s podium.

Kanuma of cross-country skiing competed in the Paralympic Winter Games for the first time in Vancouver 2010

The following year, however, she suffered a fall while training for the Sochi Paralympic Winter Games, injuring her left shoulder and putting any chances she had of winning a medal on hold. And because she couldn’t go for a medal, she quit skiing entirely.

It was a new sport, cycling, that brought her back on track toward the Paralympic Games. After hearing that a Canadian athlete, and her former rival in cross-country skiing, had switched over and was finding success in cycling, Kanuma decided to try it out. One ride on a tandem bike (a bike that seats two people), and she was enamored by how fast they could go, the wind on her face. She competed in the Rio Paralympic Games after four years of competitive experience. Though she came across some gear troubles in the Road Time Trial event, she was eventually able to get through and win an incredible silver medal.

Kanuma (back) won a silver medal at the Rio Paralympic Games, on a tandem bike

Afterwards, however, things got difficult. Though Kanuma had been considering various sports, including triathlon and athletics, for Tokyo 2020, her home-country Paralympic Games, she had actually been suffering from pain caused by neuroparalysis in both of her arms. She vowed to return to sports and underwent surgery, but developed an infection in her left arm that led to the amputation of her left forearm in 2018. The necrosis, however, continued, and she was forced to amputate her arm even shorter than before. This series of events left Kanuma with an upper-limb deficiency in addition to her vision impairment, making it difficult for her to pursue a Paralympic career in either sport.

Para-athletes who have competed in both the Summer and Winter Paralympic Games, however, are resilient, courageous people. Kanuma, who has observed so many para-athletes stand up to all manners of difficulties, has expressed a desire to return to parasports in the future.

Toshie Oi of Athletics, and His Lifetime Career on His “Dream Stage”

At the age of 71 years old, Toshie Oi was the oldest athlete competing in the Dubai 2019 World Para Athletics Championships held last November. Oi, whose goal is to compete in the Shot Put event of the Tokyo Paralympic Games, is already a Paralympic medalist, having won a silver medal in Athens 2004, and a bronze medal in Beijing 2008, in the Discus Throw event.

A former fisherman of a tuna pelagic fishery, Oi was involved in an accident on his ship, at the age of 39, that injured his spinal cord and put him in a wheelchair. After starting swimming as part of his rehabilitation, he began competing in swimming tournaments, enjoying considerable success and even setting a new Japan record. Afterwards, in an effort to compete in the Paralympic Games, he switched to athletics, going on to compete for the first time in the Athens Paralympic Games. Even when his class in the Discus Throw event was changed, suddenly, from F52 to F53, he remained unmoved and steely-spirited, discus-throwing his way to a silver medal.

Toshie Oi competed in the Rio Paralympic Games after switching to a different event

Oi won a bronze medal in Beijing 2008, and came in 10th place in London 2012. However, as he was working towards his ultimate goal—to win a gold medal—he suddenly came across a massive roadblock. The Discus Throw event for the F53 Class was to be discontinued after London 2012. Still, Oi didn’t waver in his dream for the Paralympic Games. He decided to switch to the Shot Put event, and work towards the Rio Paralympic Games in 2016. And because Oi’s cervical spine injury had left him with an impairment in his hand, one that prevented him from bringing his dominant right hand up near his ear, he was forced also to switch to throwing with his left hand.

It seems reasonable to assume that Oi had seen, past this roadblock and past all his future personal records, the hopeful sight of Tokyo 2020, his home-country Paralympic Games. Oi continued to train as hard as he could, and eventually qualified for Rio 2016. Though he came in 7th place, the frustration he felt at his performance has only become a further driving force for the next step in his journey. Even now, Oi remains as passionate as ever about his sport, training for Tokyo 2020, which he will face at the age of 73.

There are, of course, many, many other para-athletes who have faced and overcome difficulty, in addition to those introduced here. It seems now is the perfect time to learn from these para-athletes—their athletic careers, full of drama and ups and downs, and their resilience in the face of difficulty.

text by TEAM A
photo by X-1

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