Using a New World Record as Motivation: Tomoki Sato of Athletics on Seeking Out New Challenges
Tomoki Sato had watched the London 2012 Paralympic Games on the TV, his decision to start athletics inspired by the athletes he saw that day—their speed, their strength. He rose quickly through the ranks, and while still a relative newbie, won a silver at the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games. Now, as the world record holder for the 400m (T52) and 1,500m (T52) events, he is in the spotlight as Japan’s most likely gold medal contender for the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games. His goal is not just to win a gold medal, but to win a gold medal while setting a new world record. We asked Sato, who has driven himself forward with composure and tenacity even amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, about the chaotic year that was 2020, and about his future outlook.
It’s now 2021. The COVID-19 pandemic shows no signs of slowing down, and the situation remains dire throughout the world. What exactly does it feel like to be a gold medal contender for Tokyo 2020 amidst all of this?
Tomoki Sato (hereafter “Sato”): I was training around New Year’s, so for me it hasn’t really sunk in yet that it’s 2021. I watch the news, and I just hope that the pandemic will go away soon. I’m trusting that Tokyo 2020 will be held as planned, and my plan is to get myself into peak condition for the summer.
This year is a year of challenges. I want to get my time down, and I get excited thinking about how much better I could be if I took on new challenges.
Sato won two gold medals in the Dubai 2019 World Para Athletics Championship, which qualified him for the Tokyo 2020 Japan national team
©Getty Images Sport
Over the past four years, he’s made it a point to say, every time he competes in a tournament in Japan or Asia, that he has to “win by a landslide.” At the root of this is the frustration he experienced in Rio, where he’d been defeated in both his events by his most powerful rival, Raymond Martin (U.S.). He’d used the existence of this rival as fodder to boost his training, and in 2019, he beat Martin in the 400m event of the World Para Athletics Championships—a tournament known as the preliminaries to the Paralympic Games.
Sato: I’m sure Martin’s gotten faster too, and I’m not going to underestimate him just because I beat him in the world championships. I may have the world record, but he still holds those Paralympic titles. I’ll have to win the gold medal at Tokyo 2020 and avenge myself if I really want to be the world champion.
Unlike Martin, who starts off fast, Sato’s usual strategy for victory involves speeding up around the midpoint of the race. He’d worked on improving his starts, smoothing out his acceleration, and developing the strength and endurance he needs to maintain his top speed without slowing down. He’d been well-prepared for a face-off with his rival. The COVID-19 pandemic, however, resulted in the one-year postponement of the Tokyo Paralympic Games.
Sato: I remember being excited around New Year’s last year, thinking I’d get to compete in the Paralympic Games soon. It drove my motivation in a very natural way, and I put my all into my winter training at Okayama Prefecture, where my base of training is. Once February rolled around and there were COVID patients in Japan, I started feeling a bit nervous, like “Maybe this’ll affect Tokyo 2020.” But everyone was saying it was still going to happen, and I was able to train like I normally did, so I didn’t think too much of it. It was when I saw on the news that foreign athletes were refusing to compete, that I realized it might not happen this year. And then when World Challenge in Okayama, which I was supposed to compete in in March, was cancelled, I knew it was only a matter of time. So when it was announced that Tokyo 2020 would be postponed, my only real thought was, “Yeah, that makes sense.” At that point I’d already prepared myself emotionally for it, so I wasn’t too upset about it. I just knew things were getting really crazy.
Sato, who’s now become one of Japan’s star para-athletes, says his goal is to win a gold medal and set a world record at Tokyo 2020
Of course, he made full use of this extra time. Even as most domestic tournaments were postponed, and the Japan Para Athletics Championships—slated to be held at the New National Stadium—was cancelled, he never wavered in his focus on tournaments. He set his sights on the Japan Para Athletics Championships in September, scheduled for a year before the postponed Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games, and began training.
Sato: I was able to train even during the stay-at-home period, so I was thinking I wanted to adjust for peak condition for some tournament or other, but it was taking forever for the schedule of these tournaments to be decided. Of course, there was really nothing anyone could do about it. So I decided to target the Japan Para Athletics Championships in September, and base my training around that. I obviously had no way of knowing whether that tournament would be cancelled as well. But I thought, just thinking about how much time I’d need to get myself in peak condition, and making adjustments toward that, might give me confidence for when I compete in Tokyo in 2021.
Sato was in high spirits going into the Japan Para Athletics Championships in September. Ultimately, however, he was unable to set a new world record. He was disappointed after the race—especially because he’d felt he’d made real strides—but was able again to experience the pure joy of running. He went on to set a season best record in the Kanto Para Athletics Championships in November, proving to himself and to others that he could maintain a good condition even amidst the pandemic. His experience competing in a tournament without spectators also made him even more motivated to give his all in Tokyo 2020—a Paralympic Games in his home country—and capture the attention of as many people as possible.
Sato: My goal for Tokyo 2020 hasn’t changed—to win gold in both of my events. I want to set a new world record in the New National Stadium, and celebrate right then and there in front of the crowd, and just liven it up with the crowd. Of course it’s great when people cheer us on through the TV, but it’s a lot more motivating to hear this cheering in real life. And if I achieve my goal—the two gold medals—it’d be nice if I got to be the flagbearer. I’ve only competed in the Paralympic Games once, but the energy in Rio was absolutely insane, and I’ll never forget the combined Olympic and Paralympic Games parade in Ginza. I’ll do everything in my power to try to return to that stage, this time with a gold medal in hand. Of course, there’s a lot of pressure, but I think the more attention there is on me, the better I’ll perform. So please, if you can, make sure to watch my races in Tokyo 2020!
This will be the second Paralympic Games for 31-year old Sato
text by Asuka Senaga
photo by X-1