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Ever the Challenger! Keiichi Kimura Aims for Gold at Tokyo 2020 to Demonstrate Human Potential

Keiichi Kimura won four medals at the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games, including the silver medal in the 100-meter butterfly event. Then in 2018, he took on the challenge of moving to the US on his own. His goal for the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games is to win the gold medal, which he has long yearned for. We sat down to talk with the strong-willed blind swimmer who is always striving to better himself.

“I Became a Medalist Before I Became a Swimming Athlete”

In February 2018, Kimura contacted his rival and gold medal winner of two consecutive Paralympic Games, Bradley Snyder (USA). He reached out through social media and headed to Baltimore on the US East Coast. It was a challenge to reach new heights, but looking back on his decision, Kimura unexpectedly described it as running away.

Keiichi Kimura (hereafter “Kimura”): After working so hard for Rio, and knowing I needed to work even harder than that for the next four years…I wasn’t sure I could do it. I needed to really feel like I was improving. So looking back, I don’t think it was so much a challenge as it was a decision to run away.

Kimura in late July, swimming at an ASICS facility where athletes can train in a low oxygen environment

Kimura made significant changes to his athletic life in the four years leading up to Rio 2016. London 2012 had been his second Paralympic Games and he won the silver medal in the 100-meter breaststroke event. His next goal was the gold medal. The changes came about when he asked Tomohiro Noguchi from Nihon University to become his coach. Noguchi had previously also coached Olympic athletes.

Kimura: To me, the most memorable race was when I won my first medal in London. But that was, in a sense, the end of one period and the start of another. After London, I got a specialist coach for the first time to oversee my training one-on-one. He gave me a training menu and said able-bodied athletes could do this. But I struggled with it and embarrassingly realized that I lack basic physical fitness.

When Tokyo was chosen as the next host nation and as the “Olympic Games” and “Paralympic Games” began to be more closely associated as holding the same value, Kimura said he started to feel embarrassed to go out and say he was a medalist. Able-bodied swimmers far outnumber blind swimmers, and in his view, have greater competitive consciousness. He wanted to become an athlete who could stand proudly next to them.

Kimura: I became a medalist before I became a swimming athlete. It came as a shock when I realized that. I felt that I would lower the value of the Paralympics because of my lack of effort as a medalist. So in these four years since Rio 2016, I’ve been dreaming of winning the gold medal, but I’ve also been telling myself that I have to work as hard as the Olympic athletes or I’ll make a fool out of myself.

Depending on his physical condition, Kimura trains at the gym between swims

After a Childhood Full of Injuries, Fearless Kimura Found Freedom in Water

Able-bodied people and those with impairments usually live in separate worlds. Kimura attended a school for the blind since the beginning of elementary school and lived in a dormitory. So it was only natural that he was unaware of a bigger world as an athlete.

Kimura: I went to a special education school where we were guaranteed education from elementary school to high school. All the other children had difficulties seeing too, so none of us were troubled by our impairments. It was a very protected environment. The classes were also small, with just 10 or so students. So when I went to Nihon University, it was the most nervous I’d ever been in my life. It was the first time that everyone around me could see and the university itself is huge. But when I told my teacher at high school that I was afraid I may not make any friends, he said, “If you can’t make friends, nobody can.” Luckily, he was right and I made friends right away.

Kimura may not have known about a bigger world, but once he found out, his inherent personality pulled him through. He lost his sight due to an illness when he was two years old, but he still loved being active. As a child, he was fearless and liked to challenge himself to anything, which led to constant injuries. So his mother looked for a safe place for him to play and took him to the pool when he was 10 years old.

Kimura: Before going to elementary school, which was different from the one my older sister went to, I didn’t really understand that I couldn’t see or that I was different from other people. So when I was younger, I thought there was nothing my sister could do and I couldn’t. Not wanting to lose, I tried doing everything.

Since Kimura is completely blind, tapping practice is essential to prevent hitting the wall

The Two Reasons Kimura is Aiming for Gold at Tokyo 2020

At Rio 2016, Kimura failed to reach the gold medal even after working as hard as able-bodied athletes and striving to meet the expectations of those around him—as well as his own. Nevertheless, he did not stop trying. In 2019, he won the 100-meter butterfly event at the World Para Swimming Championships, continuing to add to his achievements since moving to the US.

Kimura: I felt like I was growing every day during the two years I spent in the US, so it was great (COVID-19 restricted training so I returned to Japan in mid-March and have been adjusting here). When I talk about my experiences in the US, everyone’s happy for me, which makes me happy too. I’m able to think more positively about myself now. Like, maybe I’m trying hard after all and leading a good life. I learned to speak English, experienced different cultures and grew in general as a person. I can say with confidence that these two years were not wasted.

After gaining a lot of experience and growing as both an athlete and a person, Kimura will be heading to Tokyo 2020 for a fourth attempt at the elusive gold medal. With so much attention being focused on him, the significance of aiming for the top is tremendous.

Even during the pandemic, Kimura has continued to train hard in preparation for the Paralympic Games to be held in 2021

Kimura: I have two hopes for Tokyo 2020. The first is that I want people to be wowed by the Paralympics. With swimming, (since we don’t put on any equipment) it’s especially easy to see the athletes’ impairments. Viewers can see that even though we’re missing a part of our bodies or a function, we can still achieve outstanding performances by training hard. I believe it shows the extent of human potential even more than the Olympics.

My second hope is something I realized while in the US. Athletes and fans from around the world are looking forward to visiting Tokyo, and while I’m an athlete, I’m also a citizen of Japan and in a position to host them. So I want to make it a great experience for them. For that, it’s important to get people in Japan (who will create the mood for Tokyo 2020) to have fun and enjoy the Games. I believe we, as athletes, can make that happen by putting on a great performance. So my job is to work hard to hone my skills and perform well.

As a winner of the 2019 World Para Swimming Championships, Kimura faces high expectations to win the gold medal. He is a true athlete who, while being in the Paralympic world, stands on equal footing with Olympic competitors in terms of holding high aspirations and embodying meaningful challenges. Kimura is determined to put all that he has learned as a Paralympic athlete—his experiences of becoming a medalist without knowing of a bigger world, putting everything into reaching the top and still not making it, and discovering the appeal of Japan while living abroad—into swimming for the gold.

Kimura (center), who won the gold medal at the World Para Swimming Championships, will be 30 years old for the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games

text by Takaya Hirano
photo by X-1

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