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Tsubasa Kina of Wheelchair Marathon Discusses Her Race to the Top From Her Local Okinawa

The wheelchair marathon, slated to be held on the final day of Tokyo 2020, is arguably one of the most popular and anticipated sports of the Paralympic Games. One person who’s considered a strong contender for the Japan national team is Tsubasa Kina—the top female wheelchair marathon racer in Asia, with a Japan record of 1:35:50. So what drove her to start wheelchair marathon, flying all around the world from her base in Okinawa Prefecture? And what are her thoughts on the 42.195km race that is the wheelchair marathon?

For Kina, wheelchair marathon is about keeping her core steady—a core she’s trained to fit her carbon-fiber wheelchair—and moving her arms rhythmically to turn and turn the wheels. At 173cm tall, she uses her long arms as her tsubasa (Kina’s first name, which also means “wings” in Japanese), to race through the marathon course at top speed. Her time in sports, however, began with basketball, when she spent pretty much every waking hour training with her school basketball teams.

Tsubasa Kina (hereafter “Kina”): When I was a first-year in university, I was involved in an accident during training that paralyzed my lower body. Until that point though, I was obsessed with basketball. My parents were the type to let me do what I wanted to do, ever since I was a kid, and so other than basketball, I also tried things like piano, Japanese calligraphy, and abacus. But after a while, I’d just get really sleepy every time I got in front of the piano… [laughs].

Kina uses the strength she’s cultivated from her years playing basketball to her advantage in wheelchair marathon

In junior high and high school, Kina had even been a part of the prefectural team for Okinawa Prefecture, where basketball is very popular. As a center, she’d loved Takehiko Inoue’s manga series, Real, and so after her injury, she initially tried wheelchair basketball.

Kina: I stopped playing sports for a while after I got in my wheelchair. I didn’t take time off from school for the hospitalization and the rehab, so to graduate in four years I had to stuff my schedule with classes, and I guess I didn’t really have the time or the energy. And of course at the time, I never thought I’d get into athletics. I just assumed wheelchair basketball would be the sport for me, and so I went to see training sessions for wheelchair basketball. After I graduated university, I joined a men’s club team on a sort of trial basis and trained a few times with them.

But there were very few female players in Okinawa, and at the time, the only way to play in matches was to join a club team in another prefecture. She’d have to fly to the Kyushu area every month. For Kina, still barely even a beginner in the sport, this seemed like too much. It was right around then, however, that she discovered athletics, in what seemed to be a stroke of fate.

Kina: Maybe it was because I still wasn’t all that great maneuvering my wheelchair, but I just thought wheelchair basketball felt… different from the kind of basketball I was used to playing. [My current coach] Takayuki Shimoji suggested I try athletics, so I got on a racing wheelchair and tried it. I was moving around on it, and it felt like I was going a lot faster than I actually was. And I remember thinking, hey, this is really cool.

Until then I’d only done team sports, so at first I was worried I wouldn’t be able to handle training alone. But I had training buddies from the start, and a coach that’d listen to all my complaints [laughs]. And once I actually started training, I realized there was actually a pretty strong sort of “team” feel, and there was an ease to it that came from being able to train and get better at my own pace. So I started getting more and more into it.

Kina competed in the 39th Oita International Wheelchair Marathon held last November

It was 2016 when she competed in her first full marathon. In 2019, she set a new Japan record, beating the one set by Wakako Tsuchida and becoming Japan’s top wheelchair marathon racer in just a few years’ time. She says every race is good fun, that the sense of achievement you get at the end is unbeatable. Occasionally, however, she shows flashes of competitiveness.

Kina: I get really, really nervous before an important race—a race where I want to get a good time. But as I’m racing, my body sort of relaxes, and I hear the people on the sidelines cheering, and I think, this is really fun.

Right now, my focus is on achieving the times I’ve set for myself, without being swayed by other people. For me it’s the time that’s important, so I don’t care too much about what place I get. But during training, when I’m in a really tough spot mentally and I feel like I want to give up, it helps to imagine someone faster in front of me—like Manuela [Schaer] or Susannah [Scaroni]—and imagine myself chasing after them.

Kina is motivated by how much fun she has in her races; “Even if I retire one day, I’d still race for fun,” she says

In March 2021, she was crowned champion of the Challenge Tokyo Para 42.195km in Tachikawa, the first race of the season. She is currently ranked 4th in the world, and in a position, possibly, to win a medal at the Tokyo Paralympic Games. She says, however, that she won’t set any goals for Tokyo until she knows she’ll be able to compete. If she qualifies, this will be her first Paralympic Games. She seems entirely relaxed about the prospect, however, telling us, “I don’t know how I’ll feel during the race until I get there.”

Kina has built steadily upon her training even during the pandemic, to prepare for her upcoming races

Kina: I started the sport in 2013, when it was announced that the Paralympic Games would happen in Tokyo. Since then, everyone in Japan’s gotten so excited about sports in general, including parasports. The Okinawan media is really community-oriented, and the local papers and such have done big features on us. It really feels like there’s so much more awareness now about parasports. I don’t know about outside Okinawa, but nowadays I can go to a training ground that has rollers and get in some good training even on rainy days, and even use the gyms—which is nice, given how many gyms are still inaccessible for people on wheelchairs. So I think I’ve been blessed with a really good environment. That’s why I want all these people to see me having fun racing, whether it’s in Japan or overseas, and I want more athletes from Okinawa to go and compete out in the world.

The wheelchair marathon event of the Tokyo Paralympic Games will be held on September 5. It’s our hope that on this day, at the goal point of the marathon at the Japan National Stadium, we’ll see Kina and her bright, happy smile.

text by Asuka Senaga
photo by X-1

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