Daisuke Ikezaki of Wheelchair Rugby Keeps His Eyes on the Prize Amidst Tokyo 2020 Postponement
The new event schedule for the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games has finally been announced. One team that remains a gold medal contender is the Japan national wheelchair rugby team. Even now, with the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games postponed due to the COVID-19 outbreak, the team remains optimistic, telling us, “We get to enjoy this host-country atmosphere for another year, and it’s an opportunity to have more people learn about the sport.” We asked wheelchair rugby star Daisuke Ikezaki, who has competed in the London and Rio Paralympic Games, about his thoughts on the sport.
The Japan national team lost the 3rd-place playoffs in the London Paralympic Games
A Vision of the Team, All Celebrating Together
Ikezaki dove headfirst into wheelchair rugby. He believed it was a good fit for his personality—a “manly” sport, one where the battle came down to your physicality. It didn’t take long for him to rise up through the ranks using the wheelchair techniques he’d picked up from his years in wheelchair basketball. Soon enough, he made it onto the Japan national team. His first world tournament was the 2010 World Wheelchair Rugby Championships, after which he competed in the London Paralympic Games in 2012, and the Rio Paralympic Games in 2016.
Ikezaki: I’d been playing wheelchair rugby for two years when I went to the London Paralympic Games—two years that were pretty intense, that involved lots of growth. And yet we came in 4th. I realized then that the world wasn’t going to be easy to beat. After that experience, I put myself in an environment where I could really concentrate on the sport, and trained and trained to improve myself. I went into the Rio Paralympic Games with the weight of everyone’s expectations—the federation, our sponsors, our fans—on my shoulders. Four years is 365 days, multiplied by 4. That was how long I’d spent working so hard, and this time, we came in 3rd, a bronze medal. It was disappointing, and it was frustrating. That’s not to say I wasn’t happy. This was a historic achievement for Japan wheelchair rugby, and I did think the medal was a good “souvenir” for us to bring back to Japan, but that was it. I don’t think anyone on the team was satisfied with the results. People are always really happy to see our bronze medal at lectures and other events, but that bronze medal has always felt to me like proof of our loss, our defeat.
Their bronze medal at the Rio Paralympic Games was the first Paralympic medal won by a Japan national wheelchair rugby team
This marked a new start, the beginning of their journey to the Tokyo Paralympic Games four years later.
Ikezaki: It was tough to think I’d have to work harder than I’d worked in the four years leading up to the Rio Paralympic Games. But as long as we have our sights on Tokyo 2020, we’ll be going for the gold, and we knew that if we wanted that, we’d have to do it—we’d have to work that hard.
I think the Japan national team as a whole has definitely gotten better since Kevin Orr became head coach, after Rio. He’s taught us so many things and given us so much information. We’ve worked on defender variations, offense formations, improving our lines… We have a lot more variations now when it comes to our offense and defense. It’s to the point where I think, if we’d competed in Rio with the team we have now, we would’ve won. We did actually win the GIO 2018 IWRF Wheelchair Rugby Championships, after all, and the more we work, the better we can get. And Kevin has said that we as a team have the power to win a gold medal. That’s what we want to prove at the Tokyo Paralympic Games.
I personally also changed the way I train, after Rio. The biggest difference is how much more time I try to spend with the other team members, making sure we have good communication, so that we can improve our teamwork as a whole. This has made it easier for me to know what other people are thinking, which has started to show in our plays too. It’s a positive cycle.
Tokyo 2020’s now been postponed a year, but there’s so many things we can share as a team as we move forward. And I’m sure that will lead to results as well.
Going for a try at world-class speed
Our only goal for Tokyo 2020 is winning that gold medal—that’s it. But of course, it is a competition, and you never know what’ll happen. That’s why I as an individual have to be as good as I can, and we as a team have to be as accurate as we can, before we head into that arena. Tokyo 2020 was originally planned for August 2020, and we were getting close to that date when it was announced that it’d be postponed. But I think, at that point, we still hadn’t gotten to the point where we could’ve won a gold medal. There’s still so much left to do, and I personally consider this postponement an opportunity to improve our chances of winning a gold medal.
Ikezaki says an image that he thinks of constantly is the image of the entire team celebrating together after achieving their long-held dream of winning the Tokyo Paralympic Games. And so he works, day in and day out, all spirit and passion, to turn that vision into a reality.
text by TEAM A
photo by X-1