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Mei Ichinose: What It Means to be a Swimmer and an Athlete, From Her Training Site in Australia

Mei Ichinose, who competed in the Rio Paralympic Games, is now working towards what she hopes will be her second Paralympic Games. Her tanned skin is evidence of her full life in the Southern hemisphere—specifically, in a town called Sunshine Coast on the eastern coast of Australia, where she has established her base of training.

Mei Ichinose competing in the Rio Paralympic Games at 19 years old (Photo: 2019 Japan Para Swimming Championships)
photo by X-1

Since graduating from Kindai University, Ichinose—while registered as an employee at Kindai—has established her base of training at a university in Australia, devoting her time to her athletic career.

Mei Ichinose (hereafter “Ichinose”): My base of training is at the University of the Sunshine Coast, which is a national university in Australia, and I’m with the university team, which is called the USC Spartans. The team is divided into an Olympic team and Paralympic team, and both teams have actual medalists on them. We have different coaches for the swimming training, but our coaches for weight training and athletics training are the same, and so we train together for those. In Japan, the Japan Swimming Federation and the Japan Para-Swimming Federation are operated independently, so our races are generally separate, and we register separately too. But in Australia, they’re both part of the same swimming association, and within this association they have a head coach for the Olympic Games, and a head coach for the Paralympic Games. The athletes are all used to this because they’ve all been competing at the same races since they were little. They grew up in this environment where it’s totally normal for able-bodied people and people with impairments to exist in the same spaces. So it’s not even really necessary to teach them that discrimination is bad and whatnot.

Ichinose has established her base of training in Sunshine Coast, where she is a part of the university swimming team

Ichinose: When I was little, I lived near the Kyoto City Disabled People Sports Center, and I began swimming when my parents started taking me there. There, I met Satoshi Ikai, who at the time was the coach for the Japan national swimming team for the Paralympic Games, and that’s when I started wanting to compete in the Paralympic Games. But when I was a first-year in high school I wasn’t able to make the London Paralympic Games—I’d almost qualified for it, but hadn’t. When that happened, I remember really, really thinking hard about whether I even wanted to swim anymore.

And that’s when I realized, I’ve been swimming this whole time to protect myself. There were times when people would say awful things to me about my arm, and it was really upsetting. With swimming, I could get back at them. But when I really thought about it, I’d already achieved that when I set the Japan record. That was when I realized I was done with that kind of swimming.

Ichinose as a middle school student, around when she competed in the Asian Para Games
photo by X-1

Still, she chose to continue swimming.

Ichinose: So I started thinking, okay, then why am I going to keep swimming, after missing out on London? What reason do I have to want to be a top athlete? And that was when I realized that I’d been protecting myself with my swimming, but not the people around me. And that I needed to keep going and aim to be the best, so I could create change in society.

Ichinose’s goals aren’t limited to her identity as an athlete. She wants to win races, sure, but she also wants to express herself through swimming and help create a better society in the process. So what do the Paralympic Games mean to her now?

Ichinose: What the Paralympic Games means to me, its place in my life, has changed, I think. Before, I had this sense that the Paralympic Games held all the answers. That if I did well there, everything would get better. That if I devoted all my energies toward that and that alone, it’d all be okay. But after experiencing everything I have, I realize now that I was wrong.

Just because the Paralympic Games gets more attention or a Paralympian gets famous, doesn’t mean things get better for regular people with impairment. I think recently athletes with impairments have gotten a lot more exposure on TV and through the media, but that isn’t really diversity, I think. True diversity would be if people with impairment were able to do the same things as people without impairments. So I don’t think it’s right, this messaging that “people with impairment = the Paralympic Games.”

Like, let’s say someone sees a kid with an arm that’s shorter than the other, and they think to themselves, “Hey, that kid is just like Mei Ichinose. That kid could be like Mei if they tried really hard. They could make it to the Paralympic Games!” I think that’s a dangerous line of thinking. Amongst able-bodied people, there are those who work really hard toward really intense goals, and those who are happy just living regular lives. This is an accepted, normal thing amongst people without impairment, and so this idea that people with impairment can challenge themselves, or that they can all work really hard to “conquer” or “overcome” their impairment, is really dangerous, I think. So I think the way the media portrays people with impairment needs to be a lot more diverse, and that there needs to be more of a multi-dimensional or multi-faceted understanding of people with impairment.

Ichinose doing the interview with us remotely
photo by Akatsuki Uchida

Recent polls on the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games have shown that 80% of Japanese people want Tokyo 2020 to be cancelled, or postponed again. Ichinose says she can’t help but question how the situation has been handled, with proclamations that the Games will be held as planned, but without any real strategy to solve the problems that surround it.

Ichinose: The Olympic and Paralympic Games have always been thought of as this symbol of world peace. But I think now, with COVID, it’s become apparent that that’s not really the case. I think we’ve arrived at a point where we really need to reevaluate what sports should be, and its value to people. Why do we need competition? Why do we need sports? What I really felt last year was that being able to play sports during a time like this is a privilege. It’s such a privilege.

As someone who’s always thought of the Olympic and Paralympic Games as this glamorous, dream setting, this current situation pains me. I’ll be honest—the Olympic and Paralympic Games that I know and grew up with are so much more than this. I think it’s something that can really cultivate hopes and dreams, and that can be a real driver of peace.

text by Akatsuki Uchida

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