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Japan Goalball: Tokyo 2020 Postponement Led to Altered Power Balances and the Rise of Young Athletes

The 2021 Japan Para Goalball Championships took place at the Chiba Port Arena on February 6 and 7. Since it was held during the COVID-19 state of emergency, there were no spectators to cheer on the athletes who play in a world constructed solely of sound.

Young Athletes Are Improving Rapidly in the Men’s National Team

Japan’s Men’s National Team is ranked 10th in the world. Most of the athletes qualified to participate in Tokyo 2020 are young players, and the team’s rapid growth is being led by Koji Miyajiki, who only started competing in goalball two years ago. They hold the potential to be a dark horse at the Tokyo Paralympic Games.

Miyajiki (far left) is 182 cm tall and throws dynamic balls using his height advantage

The men’s designated training athletes for Tokyo 2020 were split into two teams, A and B, and they played two games. On the first day, the wingers on National Team B started the game with rapid attacks along both sides of the court. However, National Team A countered with Yuji Taguchi in center position, Miyajiki on the left wing and Yuto Sano on the right wing. They dispersed their shots to the right and left by catching the ball and moving to a different position without making any noise. This tactic makes it harder for the opponent to detect where the next attack will come from. In this way, National Team A won the game 10-3.

On the second day, National Team A set up an offensive formation with Ryoga Yamaguchi on the right wing, but National Team B’s captain, Yuta Kawashima, took to the center and held a strong line of defense, forcing the match into a stalemate. That was broken by National Team A’s Miyajiki, who had been working on his bouncing shot to use against international opponents. He scored the first goal and Sano, who replaced Yamaguchi in the second half of the game, scored consecutive shots by varying his attacks. As a result, National Team A won 5-1.

Taguchi in center position controlled the flow of the game with his steady defense

Kyoichi Ichikawa, who coaches the women’s team, began to oversee the men’s team as well last October. Out of a desire to make them as strong as the women’s team, he changed their training environment and enabled them to hold a long-term training camp at NTC East. It led to significant improvements as Miyajiki commented: “I think we’re the team that’s improving the most during this period when we can’t compete internationally.”

Coach Ichikawa said, “The power balance within the national team has changed over this past year since Tokyo 2020’s postponement. But the improvements are clear to see among the athletes who have trained together over an extended period. The younger athletes are also moving around a lot, which is good.”

Sano, who contributed to both offense and defense, is receiving one-on-one training from Coach Ichikawa

The Postponement of Tokyo 2020 is Forcing the Women’s National Team to Restructure

In contrast to the men’s performances, Coach Ichikawa said the women’s matches felt somewhat lacking.

Six athletes on the Women’s National Team have already qualified for Tokyo 2020, but Ichikawa said he may replace three of them after reviewing their performances during the Championships.

One of them is Rie Urata, who made the following comment.

Urata, who demonstrated an impenetrable defense at the London 2012 Paralympic Games, is now 43 years old and says her strength is being able to cheerfully encourage everyone at all times

“The Paralympic Games is about aiming for the best in the world. So I think the team should be made up of the best athletes at the time of the tournament. I’m sure we all think the same way. I’m focused on fulfilling my role, performing well and doing everything I can for the team’s victory.”

The match between the women’s National Team A and National Team B ended in a stalemate and even overtime didn’t produce a winner. The score was 0-0 and the match had to be decided with extra throws. In the second round, National Team A’s ace player, Eiko Kakehata, missed the goal with a cross ball, whereas National Team B’s Masae Komiya scored a clean goal, which decided the game.

Veteran player Komiya (left) is avoiding injury and maintaining her physical fitness

On the second day of the Championships, the women’s teams each played against Tsukuba tec, a mixed team comprised mostly of members of the Men’s Club Team. The purpose of the matches was for the women’s teams to be able to respond to high-speed balls, which top international players will be throwing.

Kakehata on National Team A scored much-awaited points with her spin shot, which she excels at. In addition, 20-year-old Norika Hagiwara also scored two points, leading the team to victory. Nevertheless, they were unable to respond quickly enough to Yuji Ando’s speed, allowing Tsukuba tec to score three points. This showed they still have hurdles to overcome.

Rieko Takahashi, who protected the center of the court as a solid line of defense for National Team A, is also one of the athletes being reconsidered

Meanwhile, National Team B, which didn’t allow their opponent to score a single point the day before, fought an intense match against Tsukuba tec. With 4.6 seconds remaining, Komiya received a penalty for a high ball. Ando scored the goal, putting National Team B behind by one point. It looked like all was over. But then left winger Tomoe Takada threw a diagonal bouncing shot and brought the score back to a tie. Then Saki Amuro, who came in for the overtime, scored a goal with her first shot, leading the team to a spectacular win.

Coach Ichikawa had been hoping to stir up the two veteran players and see young Takahashi’s growth, but the matches left him unconvinced. He explained his conflicted feelings, saying, “When it comes to the women’s team, my honest thought is: I wish we could have played as scheduled in August 2020.” In addition to Kazuya Kaneko in the men’s team and Haruka Wakasugi in the women’s team (who couldn’t join the Championships for academic reasons), six men and six women will ultimately bear Japan’s flag at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games. The final members to join the Japanese delegation will likely be decided in April by the latest.

The Japanese Para-Sports Association, which organized the Championships, said they were determined to turn this exciting opportunity into a success; while there were no spectators, the games were streamed online

text by TEAM A
photo by Hideyuki Imai

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