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Blind Long Jumper, Chiaki Takada, Aims for the Top with Two Olympians and Her Family

“Better to regret doing something than to regret not doing something.” This mindset has supported Chiaki Takada’s forward momentum over the years. Due to a congenital eye disorder, Takada lost her vision completely before turning 20 years old. Nevertheless, her drive for challenge led her to the world of athletics. She married and gave birth even as she continued working to qualify for the Paralympics. After two failed attempts, she qualified to participate in the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games, where she came in eighth place in the long jump event. Her accomplishments at the 2019 World Para Athletics Championships then won her a place on the Japanese delegation to the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games. Now, she’s devoting herself to training with two Olympians and her family to reach the top of the podium.

Years of Struggle to Reach Rio 2016

Takada started athletics after she graduated a school for the visually impaired and started working. Compared to her school days, which she had dedicated to sports, work life was a mundane routine of going to work and then going home. She wanted to exercise, but it was hard to do on her own because of her impairment. So she consulted her teacher at the school for the visually impaired, who recommended athletics. At first, she was just happy to run for fun and wasn’t even thinking about the Paralympics.

Chiaki Takada (hereafter “Takada”): The first time I entered a 100-meter race at a tournament, I met an athlete who was aiming for the Paralympics. She said to me, “Since you run so well, why not go for it?” suggesting I aim for the Paralympics too. As I asked her about the average times and the number of athletes, I thought to myself, “If I’m going to give it a try, I want to aim for the world.” I figured that if I became a representative of Japan, I could travel overseas. It felt a little bit like going on vacation.

Takada currently competes in the 100-meter and long jump events

Takada fell short of qualifying for the Beijing 2008 and London 2012 Paralympic Games in the 100-meter event. At the time of her first attempt, she was still new to athletics but nevertheless gave it her all. Her second failed attempt, however, was after marrying, giving birth and while raising her child. She said it made her consider retiring.

Takada: I talked to my husband, who told me, “It’s up to you in the end. But it’s better to regret doing something than it is to regret not doing something.” I decided to continue competing.

It’s impossible to talk about Takada’s career as an athlete without including her family. Her husband, Yuji, who she married in 2008, is also an athletics athlete. Yuji has a congenital hearing impairment known as sensorineural hearing loss. He has participated in three consecutive Deaflympic Games, which is regarded as the Olympics for the deaf.

Challenging Herself to Long Jump and Receiving Direct Coaching from an Olympian

Takada, who is blind, walks with her athletic partner, Omori (photo from Rio 2016)

Takada only began long jump, which is now her main event, after London 2012. Her guide is Shigekazu Omori, who Takada describes as basically being a part of her. The role of the guide is to lead athletes with visual impairments as they run or jump. Omori is himself an Olympian and was a member of the 1600-meter relay team that came in fifth place at the Atlanta 1996 Olympic Games. But when it came to long jump, there was a lot that both Omori and Takada had to get used to.

Takada: I first had to overcome the fear of running and jumping on my own without being able to see anything and with only Shigekazu’s voice as a guide. He said to me, “You decided you wanted to do this, so don’t tell me you’re afraid.” But that’s easier said than done. It took me a while to be able to jump without holding back, so we were always arguing during training (laughs). At tournaments, I jumped through sheer willpower, but it took me about six years to conquer that fear during practice.

Takada qualified for Rio 2016 after overcoming such obstacles, where she came in eighth place in the long jump event. After Rio, she worked on improving her jump form to do even better at Tokyo 2020. She asked to be coached by Kumiko Imura (previously Kumiko Ikeda), holder of the Japanese long jump record and a member of the Japanese delegation to Beijing 2008. Omori was the one who brought them together.

Takada: At the time, my personal record was from Rio 2016, which was 4.45 meters. When I showed Kumiko the video of my jump, she said, “I’m surprised you cleared four meters with this kind of form.” I thought, “oh my” (laughs). Since then, Shigekazu and I started to visit Imura Athlete Academy in Mie every February or March to receive direct long jump coaching from Kumiko.

Takada’s challenge was overcoming her fear of jumping and landing without being able to see (photo from Rio 2016)

It was during the summer of 2019 that Imura’s coaching and Takada’s form finally clicked. In July, Takada set a new Japanese long jump record of 4.60 meters at the Japan Para Athletics Championships. In November, she did even better at the 2019 World Para Athletics Championships held in Dubai, UAE. Her jump was 4.69 meters, putting her in fourth place. It was a fantastic performance that earned her a place on the Japanese delegation to Tokyo 2020, which is given to athletes who place fourth or higher.

Since Rio 2016, Takada has been working on improving her form with a four-year plan

The Postponement of Tokyo 2020 and More Time with Family

On March 24, 2020, Tokyo 2020 was postponed due to the novel coronavirus. Takada, too, was unable to use the university track, which she was using to train, and was greatly affected by the pandemic.

Takada: (Regarding the Tokyo 2020 postponement) I’ve talked to Shigekazu about this and we both feel that it couldn’t be helped. I’ve come to think of it as more time to perfect my jump form. It’s more difficult now to secure a training place and I know it’s putting a bigger burden on Shigekazu, but all we can do is keep going and keep doing what we can.

The pandemic has brought changes to the family too. Both Takada and her husband spend more time at home with their son, Satoki. He was born in 2008, the year they got married. Now, he sometimes goes with his father to cheer Takada on from the bleachers.

Takada: Normally, both Yuji and I are away from home a lot because of training or tournaments. At first, Satoki was sad and said, “Don’t go!” every time we tried to leave. But now, after we told him about our dreams, he says he wants to see a gold medal from a big tournament. When I won a silver medal at the Asian Para Games, I was so happy and showed it to Satoki, who said, “Not gold, but congrats.” (laughs). A fellow athlete from Japan said, “Your son’s setting the highest bar for you.” But to me, he’s my greatest motivation.

Takada is aiming for the gold medal at Tokyo 2020 (photo from Rio 2016)

The Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games are scheduled to open on August 24, 2021. Right now, Takada is in the final phase of perfecting her jump form, which she has continued to improve with a four-year plan since Rio 2016. She says her ultimate goal is to reach five meters and cry with Omori at the top of the podium. With Yuji and Satoki, who is now a junior high school student, watching over her, will Takada be able to make her dream come true?

text by Naoto Yoshida
photo by X-1,TEAM A

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