Kengo Oshima, Rising Star of the Men’s 100m: “I Like Figuring Out How to Do Things”
Former rugby player Kengo Oshima operates by a simple principle: “I try things because I want to.” This, in fact, was exactly how he’d gotten into the athletics 100m event. “I wanted to see how fast I could run on a prosthetic leg,” he said. It was this same sort of curiosity that drove him to his third year in the sport, when he competed in the Japan Para Athletics Championships. There, he pulled ahead of his powerful rivals to win his first title, making himself known as a rising star in the world of athletics.
Rugby-Life High School Years
Oshima, who’d been born without his left foot from the ankle down. When he entered Seto-Nishi High School, he joined their powerhouse rugby team.
Last November, Oshima participated for the first time in a training camp as a member of the Universal Relay
Kengo Oshima (hereafter “Oshima”): I had no reservations about joining the rugby team. To the point where I didn’t even realize it wasn’t really normal to play rugby with a prosthetic leg—not until my mom told me, after I’d entered university, that at the time she’d been a little worried about me. It’s true I couldn’t step off of my left foot, but I really don’t think the other teams noticed [laughs].
Oshima learned a lot from rugby—that if he trained steadily, he could knock down someone bigger than him, that if he trained, he would get bigger. He also just liked the intensity and physicality of rugby, and the camaraderie with his teammates. It was right around then, in the midst of his rugby obsession, that he discovered parasports.
Oshima: When I was a second-year in high school, my club advisor told me about a para-athlete recruitment event, and ended up taking me there. That was when I realized that there was this whole other world of para-sports, and that I could get sports prosthetics too.
A bit of explanation: Oshima, until that point, had been playing rugby with his regular, daily-use prosthetic. The difference in length between his right and left leg, he said, was only about 10 centimeters, and he’d assumed that there wouldn’t be enough length for a leaf spring to work.
Oshima: But Atsuo Okino, a prosthetist/orthotist who was at the event, told me that he could make me a sports prosthetic. I was able to try one on and run around, and the fit wasn’t perfect and it was heavy, but it made me think, I wonder how fast I could run if I had a prosthetic that actually fit me?
This was September 2016—the moment that laid the groundwork for Oshima’s career in athletics. Oshima devoted the rest of his high school years to rugby. Then, when he was accepted to Nagoya Gakuin University, he went straight to Okino’s workshop.
Becoming a Sprinter in University
Kengo Oshima is getting better and better at using his prosthetics, and getting better and better times
In March 2018, Oshima tried on his very first sports prosthetic, and found that a whole new world had opened up in front of him. Oshima’s case was a rare one, and he’d been told that making him a prosthetic wouldn’t be an easy task. And yet, his very own prosthetic—one designed with a socket to cover the bottom of the knee—was coming together.
Oshima: I invited my brother along and we ran together. And I noticed that with my regular prosthetic, I’d have to work really hard to keep up with him, but with the sports one, I could beat him easily. I even thought, you know, that if I ran a race I could easily beat everyone else [laughs wryly].
There was also the confidence that came from his years playing rugby. But reality wasn’t so forgiving, and in his first official race, the Aichi Para-Athletics Festival, he lost in what he says even now was the “most frustrating experience of [his] career.” He’d come in with a time of 12.67 seconds, 0.82 seconds behind the winner, Keita Sato, and had finished in third place. This first race drove him to think harder about his running—how could he get himself to run faster?
Oshima: My first year in athletics, I didn’t really know anything about it. But from the second year on, I started seeing the cracks in my running—my legs weren’t synced up correctly, for example, and my posture wasn’t very stable. Once I was able to work on those, I noticed my time got better and better, and athletics really became fun for me.
He also got lucky with the people around him. Indeed, the coach for the athletics team at Nagoya Gakuin University is Katsuhiko Matsuda, a former Japan-record holder for decathlon.
Oshima: I go up to him and say, “This is the way I want to run,” and he asks why, or he says, you know, “Well, then you should do this instead,” listening to me and giving me advice. He never explicitly told me to do anything, which I think made me a lot better at working these things through on my own. There isn’t anyone in Japan who wears prosthetics for legs as long as mine, so it’s really important that I’m able to think through my running and my prosthetic on my own.
Oshima, now a university student, does his athletics training while also working a part-time job at an after-school day care
The Paralympic Games, and a Loftier Dream
His efforts came to fruition in September 2020, when he won his first title at the Japan Para Athletics Championships. He’d bested his rivals, including Sato and Asia record-holder Shunsuke Itani, and opened a path for himself toward the Tokyo Paralympic Games. And yet, Oshima wasn’t entirely happy with the results. His time had been 11.93 seconds.
Oshima: I thought I could’ve run an 11.70, and as long as I got that time I wouldn’t have cared if I came in 2nd or 3rd. But I won with a time over 11.90, so I wasn’t super happy about it.
Oshima was crowned champion of the 100m (T64) event at the Japan Para Athletics Championships last September
Oshima has a short-term goal and a loftier, long-term goal. In the short-term, he wants to beat Itani’s Asia record of 11.47 seconds. And in the long-term…
Oshima: I really admire Markus Rehm (Germany) [of long jump]. To be able to beat an Olympic record—I mean, it just represents such a perfect fusion of people and prosthetics. That’s what I want to do for the 100m event. If I train harder and really work out the best way to use my prosthetics, there’s a chance I’ll be able to run the 100m faster than an able-bodied runner. The power of people + prosthetics. As it is now, it’s a struggle just to figure out how to use my prosthetics, but eventually I want to be the pioneer for this sort of thing.
text by Yoshimi Suzuki
photo by X-1