Seiya Norimatsu x Kae Kurahashi (Wheelchair Rugby): “Moving Forward as a Team, Overcoming Struggle”
2021, a new year. The Japan wheelchair rugby team, having overcome various struggles, have come together as one in their quest to be the best in the world. Here, Seiya Norimatsu, the team’s most physically active low-pointer (players with heavier impairments who have been assigned a lower number of points), engages in a remote dialogue with Kae Kurahashi, the only female player on the team, known for her trademark smile. The two talked about the various charms of the Japan national team, and what to watch out for when it comes to low-pointer plays.
Seiya Norimatsu - Born in 1990 / 1.5 points / Lives in Kumamoto Prefecture / Member of the Fukuoka Dandelion
Began playing wheelchair rugby in December 2013, and qualified for the Japan national team for the first time for the IWRF 2014 Wheelchair Rugby World Championships. He was one of the main drivers of the team in the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games, where they won a bronze medal. He also played a role in the team winning the IWRF 2018 Wheelchair Rugby World Championships.
Kae Kurahashi – Born in 1990 / 0.5 points / Lives in Saitama Prefecture / Member of BLITZ
Discovered wheelchair rugby in 2014, and made her international debut as the first-ever female player on the Japan national team in March 2017. Played a significant role in the finals match against Australia in the IWRF 2018 Wheelchair Rugby World Championships, and contributed to the Japan national team’s first-ever championship title.
――2020 was a chaotic year. How was it for you two?
Seiya Norimatsu (hereafter “Seiya”): What with everything going on with the COVID-19 pandemic, it was a year I really had to be patient for and bear through. There was a two-month period starting April where we couldn’t use the gym, and I spent that time using rollers to train on the rugby wheelchair, and going around parks. But training at homes, it becomes a battle with yourself. Like, how hard was I able to push myself today? I look back on it now and wonder how I was able to handle it—I was always so on the brink mentally.
Kae Kurahashi (hereafter “Kae”): You really take your rugby training very seriously. I personally wasn’t in very good shape competitively, so the Paralympic Games being postponed felt to me like a lucky accident. I sat down with Kevin [Orr, head coach of the Japan national team] and my trainer, and we decided to use this opportunity to really commit to physical rehabilitation. I spent the year focusing on what I felt I needed to do, making sure not to get distracted by what the others were doing when I went to training sessions for the club team. Of course there were times where I felt anxious, but I was able to do what I needed to do—all while envisioning the day I’d be able to get back on the court. So for me, the Kanji character that defines my 2020 was tsuranuku (persevere).
――We’re at the start of another Paralympic year. What do you think of when you think of the Paralympic Games?
Seiya: When I competed in the Paralympic Games for the first time four years ago, I really felt that it was a special place, a special stage. There were so many people that came to watch, and the cheers were deafening. There was, of course, the pressure of playing on a stage like that, but it was just so, so fun. To the point where every time we finished a match, I’d find myself thinking, “Aw, only x matches left,” and feeling a bit sad.
Kae: The players who competed in Rio 2016 all say that—that the cheers were deafening. Imagine not being able to hear the ball bouncing or your teammates’ voices or anything… I’ve never been in the Paralympic Games before, so I really want to experience it for myself!
I’m also really excited for the Opening Ceremony. I love watching ceremonies on TV, like for the Olympic Games, and so it’d be an incredible experience to be able to watch the Opening Ceremony of the Paralympic Games in person.
――In July, the team reinstated its intensive training camp.
Seiya: I had to travel from the Kyushu to the Kanto area, so I joined the training camp a bit late in August. I was happy to see everyone again, after so much time away, but I also felt like I had to close the gap between me and some of the other players, and so it was kind of a tense time for me.
Kae: I haven’t been able to participate very much, but I’m able to watch what they’re doing online from my house. I want to get the strategies in my head, so I’m able to fulfill my role properly when I get back on the court. A big factor for me when it comes to this whole experience has been having someone like our assistant captain Masayuki Haga, who I’ve always been able to confide in, and who really listens to me.
Seiya: Haga is always watching what’s happening on the team, and he’s someone who’s really amazing at picking up on what people need. He’s someone who’s a role model on the court, in that he’s very energetic and physically active, and also off the court, as someone who can switch up the whole team’s energy with just a couple of words. I really respect him.
Kae: Yeah. He’s always checking in on me, which I’m really grateful for. It just makes you feel secure. I want to develop that sort of relationship with other players too, so we can build on that in our plays together.
――What kind of year do you think 2021 will be?
Kae: I spent 2020 mostly focused on myself and my own rehab, so I want to make 2021 a year that I spend playing rugby with my team. It’d be great if we could move forward as a team, and overcome the struggles of the pandemic. Of course, I’ll also be working hard to make it onto the Japan national team for the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games.
Seiya: Almost all of our tournaments were cancelled due to the pandemic, so we each spent a lot with ourselves, just training away. So I’d like it if 2021 was the year where all of our effort came to fruition, the year where the team really got to blossom in the Tokyo Paralympic Games. It’d also be nice to see what changes I’ve gone through during COVID, and to be able to see that in action in a match, and see how much I’ve grown.
text by Asuka Senaga
key visual by X-1