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Challenge for Tomorrow! School Program: The Power of Parasports in Recovery Efforts

Here, we wanted to explore the influence that parasports has had on recovery efforts in areas affected by the Great East Japan Earthquake, specifically through the lens of Challenge for Tomorrow! School Program (The School), a visiting workshop-style class led by para-athletes. In this class, children try various parasports while learning about diversity, mental/physical fortitude, and more. We went to the School special event hosted at Ishinomaki City Sumiyoshi Junior High School on March 9, the 10-year anniversary of the Great East Japan Earthquake, to find out.

The Power to Be Hopeful and Live Constructively, as Told by a Para-Athlete

Shinji Negi, a student-favorite instructor and captain of the Japan national men’s wheelchair basketball team for the Sydney Paralympic Games, works to popularize parasports by giving lectures, etc.; his life goal is to “become friends with everyone he meets”

The School, hosted by the Nippon Foundation Paralympic Support Center (co-sponsor: Japan Airlines Co., Ltd.) is a visiting workshop-style class on parasports that has been held in approximately 1,090 schools (elementary schools, junior high schools, high schools, special education schools, etc.) in the past five years. It is a popular program that has offered lectures, parasport workshops, etc., to about 160,000 children so far. During the class, children and teachers alike are able to try parasports like wheelchair basketball and wheelchair relay. They also learn how to translate their thoughts and feelings into “challenge behaviors,” by hearing from real para-athletes about physical/mental fortitude and the value of diversity.

The School has been held in a total of 22 schools in Ishinomaki City after the Great East Japan Earthquake. For Shinji Negi, the instructor for this special event and the captain of the Japan national wheelchair basketball team for the Sydney Paralympic Games, Ishinomaki City is a special place—one he visits every year.

Students were able to try wheelchair basketball during the class

“I started using a wheelchair after getting in a traffic accident as a third-year in high school. I was at the lowest point of my life when I discovered wheelchair basketball, and it saved me. I’d given up on sports at the time, but then I saw some people playing wheelchair basketball, and it was just so incredible. I remember just marveling at how amazing these people were, how cool they looked. I was struck by how much people could accomplish if they wanted to. So then I got more and more into wheelchair basketball, to the point where I was able to play in the Sydney 2000 Paralympic Games as captain of the men’s national wheelchair basketball team. And now, here I am telling you about these experiences, being able to take part in this great effort. It’s just an amazing thing.
Of course, it’s not a good thing that I was in that accident, and even now, I look back on that time as a really hard time in my life. But that just shows how much I treasure the time I’ve spent playing wheelchair basketball, and the people I’ve met because of it. It’s different—suddenly having to use a wheelchair, and losing the people you love, your home, in a natural disaster. But when something happens to you that you never thought would happen, how do you go on? What do you live for? It’s sad and it’s painful, and you think all kinds of things. But, I tell them, meet your own ‘teammates,’ take on new challenges—new dreams, new goals—and there’ll be such an incredible future ahead of you! I just want them to learn from my experience, if even just a little bit. That’s what I try to do when I talk to the kids,” said Negi.

How do people cope, think, behave, when their everyday life suddenly turns into something they couldn’t have dreamed of? This is something that para-athletes, who have taken on their various challenges in constructive ways, may be uniquely qualified to discuss. Through their powerful stories, children learn how important it is to have the courage to take on their potential, and pursue their own dreams and goals. This is one of the things that parasports has been able to offer to support recovery efforts.

The Magic Words that Drove His Dream for 16 Years

Negi making a three-pointer in a single shot during the wheelchair basketball demonstration, as the children cheered along the sidelines

One of the most memorable parts of Negi’s lecture was his story on the power of support, of people rooting for you. When he made his first shot in wheelchair basketball, after a while of not being able to make a single one, or when he was finally able to play in the Paralympic Games, after so many moments where he’d almost given up—all these, he said, he’d been able to achieve because of the support he got from his friends.

“After the accident, I went through a period where I sort of lost myself, where I didn’t know how I was supposed to go on. But when I started wheelchair basketball, kids started cheering me on, you know, like ‘You’re so cool, Mr. Negi!’ ‘Go, Mr. Negi!’ I’d felt so bad for myself until then, and it was like all of a sudden, I was cool. I was able to get back the sense of self-respect and self-efficacy I’d lost. Then I started thinking, I want to show everyone how well I’m doing! And I decided to aim for the Paralympic Games. It took 16 years for me to get there, but the reason I didn’t give up, despite all that time, was because of the support of my friends,” said Negi.

The Power of Parasports to Change People, and to Change Society

This parasport-facilitated recovery effort, it seems, has helped the people affected by the disaster be more hopeful and optimistic about their circumstances.

Negi said, of the time he went to visit Onagawa after the Great East Japan Earthquake, “I visit this girls’ junior basketball team called the Onagawa Fever Angels a lot, and there was this feeling, for a while after the disaster, that it wasn’t really the time for sports. The kids’ moms told me, ‘They loved basketball so much, and now they don’t even say they want to play. There was this sort of atmosphere of… we don’t have the energy or the means, like they felt they weren’t allowed to say they wanted to play.’ But then, I’d go visit, you know, as a wheelchair basketball player, and we got some women’s basketball players to visit, and gradually, we got the smiles back on everyone’s faces again. Even the moms seemed like they were having fun, and the kids would say to me, ‘I’m glad I can play basketball again. Thanks for coming,’ and ‘When are you coming again?’ And they seemed so happy. Seeing the kids like that, I promised myself I would go visit them again, that I would use parasports to try to give everyone this sort of power.”

To change the trajectory of people’s thoughts, you sometimes need new, outside energy. Negi’s visiting workshops, it seems, did just that for the kids in these areas, giving them the room to feel secure, to smile and laugh, and shift their mindset.

Negi with the girls on the Onagawa Fever Angels, a girls’ mini-basketball team
*Photo taken in 2014 and provided by Negi

text by Parasapo Lab
photo by Yoshiteru Aimono

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