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“I Want to Do It All!”: Kaede Maegawa of Long Jump (Athletics) on Her Journey to Tokyo 2020

Kaede Maegawa of athletics qualified for the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games when she came in 4th in the Women’s Long Jump (T63) event at the Dubai 2019 World Para Athletics Championships. Since the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games, she has worked tirelessly to improve her athletic technique, and in her personal life, has utilized her skills in illustration to work as a creative. “There are just so many things I want to do,” she told us, the excitement clearly visible in her eyes. So what, then, does the future hold for Maegawa?

Growing Out of Her Dislike of Sports, and Discovering Para Athletics

Maegawa uses an above-knee prosthesis to make her powerful jumps. Nowadays, she’s become one of the top athletes in Japanese women’s para athletics. She tells us, however, that she’d originally been someone who disliked sports.

Kaede Maegawa (hereafter “Maegawa”): I started karate lessons as a first-year in elementary school, and I didn’t like it. My parents told me to keep at it until I got my black belt, so that was the only reason I was doing it. I just didn’t like exercise very much to begin with, so P.E. was a struggle for me, and I absolutely hated ball sports.

Kaede Maegawa is from Mie Prefecture, but is now based in Osaka Prefecture; her expressions are bright, vibrant

It was when her friend invited her to play mini basketball as a fifth-year in elementary school that she discovered the joy of sports. She even joined her junior high school basketball team. When she was walking her family dog as a third-year in junior high school, however, she was involved in a traffic accident. A driver that had mistaken the accelerator for the brake crashed into her, pinning her against a wall and crushing both of her legs. Her right leg, which had gone necrotic, was amputated. After the surgery, all she could think about were all the things she wouldn’t be able to do anymore. It was Dr. Hiroaki Kato, the physiatrist in charge of her physical rehabilitation, who helped soothe her worries.

Maegawa: Dr. Kato showed me all these articles of people who’d traveled all the way across the world with a prosthesis, or who were snowboarding or running, and told me, “You know, there’s probably nothing you can’t do.” I remember that took away a lot of my worries. That was also when he told me about the Paralympic Games, though at the time I just remember thinking, well, that’s nice for them. But then I actually watched the London Paralympic Games, and it was amazing! I was riveted. They were using all different kinds of prostheses, and their athleticism was incredible. I was so inspired by this, it eliminated any preconceptions I had about prostheses.

At the time, though, I wasn’t considering getting into these sports myself. But just knowing you could run like that with a prosthesis made me more optimistic. It started me thinking, hey, I want to play basketball with everyone, or I want to run in P.E.

It was about a year later that Maegawa began to use a prosthesis.

Maegawa: There was this bone at the end of my stump that made it hard for a prosthesis to fit on it, so it took about a year before they could get a prosthesis ready for me. It was after I entered high school that they finally did the casting for it. At the time, the prosthesis was this thing you’d wear using a belt. The one they made for me, the leg part was made of sponge, and the socket was this pale orange color, close to my skin tone. I’d been imagining this really mech-y prosthesis, like the ones that GIMICO was wearing—you know, the amputee model. So I was really disappointed with what it looked like. I told the prosthetist/orthotist, “I don’t like it. Please change it.” And I remember them being surprised, like, “What?”

Rehab was really, really hard. I couldn’t walk very well, I’d trip—it was scary. It’d taken a year to make the prosthesis, so I’d gotten used to going around with a cane. I thought, you know, that I could survive without a prosthesis, so I didn’t take it very seriously at all.

But around then, I found out this band, SEKAI NO OWARI, was going to have an outdoor concert. You have to walk a lot at outdoor concerts, and I knew if I was going to go, I’d want to jump around on both my legs. And I thought, you know what, I might actually need the prosthesis. So I spent two weeks on inpatient physical rehab during summer vacation, and got to the point where I could walk with it. My right leg had healed pretty considerably by then, so they’d gotten me refitted for a new carbon prosthesis, with a socket that goes over a liner (part that goes onto the stump and protects the skin from the socket). The socket part was all black with this eye pattern, and the leg part was really mech-y. I put it on and went to the concert, and it was just incredible! My stump got all bloody from walking around so much, but it was so fun it was worth it.

“The Paralympics seemed like a dream, an unattainable dream,” said Maegawa

In the fall before she’d gone to this concert, Maegawa had started athletics, at the recommendation of Dr. Kato. Over time, she became captivated by the feelings of the wind on her face, and the joy of competition, and became more and more serious about the sport. She started with just the 100m event, then took on long jump in 2016. “That bouncy feeling was so fun, it was addictive,” said Maegawa. She managed to take this energy straight into the Rio Paralympic Games, where she came in 4th in the event.

Maegawa: I’d gone into Rio hell-bent on winning a medal, so I was really frustrated. All of a sudden I was thinking, I have to win a medal next time, I have to work harder.

Passion, Become a Curse

After this, Maegawa began training under Kumiko Imura, relearning athletics from the basics to improve her performance. At the same time, however, she began to put too much pressure on herself, and her mental state suffered as a result.

Maegawa: 2019 was the hardest year for me. The World Para Athletics Championships in Dubai was coming up in November, and that would determine whether I’d qualify for the Tokyo Paralympic Games. I put so much pressure on myself to get faster, work harder, that after coming back from Germany in March, where I’d made my new prosthesis, my performance just completely stalled.

I’d go to the track, and run, and just start crying. I’d even get nauseous during training. I didn’t want to go to training, but I’d tell myself I had to. It got to the point where I never even knew if I was awake or asleep, if it was night or day. I just wanted to get Tokyo over with, and I thought once that was over, I’d quit. But then I’d feel guilty for even thinking something like that, feeling like I was betraying everyone who’d been supporting me, and that made it even worse. I was so depressed at this point that it wasn’t even just about athletics anymore—I just felt tired of life.

I knew I couldn’t keep going like this, and that was when I thought of Dr. Kato, my physiatrist. At the time, I hadn’t seen Dr. Kato in about a year, but for some reason I wanted to see him and talk to him about all of this. So I called him immediately and told him, you know, “I’m getting tired of life.” Since then, Dr. Kato has been providing me with mental training.

Maegawa proved herself on the world stage while battling with the pressures of being an athlete

Something she started doing, based on the advice of Dr. Kato, was to express her feelings as various “characters.” Maegawa, who had always liked to draw, found that she could express through illustrations emotions she found difficult to describe in words.

Maegawa: I draw negative emotions too, of course. But Dr. Kato told me, you know, that only drawing the negative ones will make me sad, so I should draw the positive ones too—things I was happy about, good things that happened in my life. He said that “creating” these positives within myself would help me cheer myself up, make me excited for things again. So I started drawing all my emotions, turning them into characters and giving them names. By turning them into characters, I started being able to recognize what emotions I was feeling when—like when I’d feel something similar on a different day, I’d think to myself, oh hey, it’s you again, or hmm, it’s a different one this time. It was a slow process, but over time, I started feeling like, okay, these emotions are all inside of me, so I could probably do something about them.

At the time, the pain I was going through, feeling like I was disappointing people, had made me scared of meeting with anyone, to the point where I was avoiding the people in my life. But as I met with Dr. Kato, I started thinking, maybe I could meet with people, as long as they’re people who wouldn’t make any negative comments. So I started meeting with my close friends first, and when that went okay, with different friends, and so on and so forth, just growing my comfort zone from there.

And as I did that, I realized something important—that the people who were supporting me cared more about me having fun at these matches, than they did about my results, my achievements. Understanding that was one of the things that helped me sort out my feelings on all this.

By accepting the negative emotions she had been experiencing, Maegawa had remembered and rediscovered the joy of athletics. She built her motivation toward the World Para Athletics Championships while working to overcome this struggle. Still, she said, the same negative emotions reared their heads at the championships.

Maegawa: I’d named this particular negative emotion, “Murder Monster,” and Murder Monster showed up in Dubai too. Every time it happened, I’d call Dr. Kato and say to him, “Murder Monster’s here. Murder Monster’s here and he’s messing with my performance.”

The negative emotions came up on the actual day of the tournament too. But when you think about them as characters, they become kind of cute. It gave me the emotional space I needed to get my feelings in order, and think to myself, okay, I’m just going to focus on doing my best, giving it the best I’ve got. And that’s how I went into it.

To keep the focus on myself during the match, I refused to look at my results until I’d done all three jumps. You don’t get any more jumps unless you get in the top eight, so that was when I looked to see my results for the first time, and found out I was in 4th place. I was so happy. And I’d even set a personal record in my first jump. After that, I just enjoyed myself—really, truly enjoyed myself—trying to beat my own record.

Maegawa came in 4th in the Long Jump event at the Dubai 2019 World Para Athletics Championships, and qualified for the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games
photo by Getty Images Sport

An Athlete and a Creative

Maegawa’s emotional “characters” have now been turned into a LINE sticker set called, “What lives in my heart.” She is also expanding her range as a creative, selling T-shirts, smartphone cases, stickers, and more, under her artist name, Hen+nano.

Maegawa: I’ve always liked drawing and making things. My friends loved it when they’d make requests and I’d draw characters for them, and it just made me really happy. When I make something that I think is great, I’d like a lot of people to see it, and if that makes someone somewhere happy, then that’s really the best thing ever.

Maegawa has also participated in events like the Amputee Venus Show 2020, a fashion show by photographer Takao Ochi, and the Amputee Venus Calendar 2021. “It’s amazing to be a part of a work of art,” she said happily.

Maegawa: The fashion show and calendar shoot were so amazing—these amazing people turning me into their canvas and just creating these works of art. I was so happy to be part of this group of incredible people creating these incredible things. So during the actual show, I tried to show their work off as much as possible, like “Hey, look at me!”

I love cool-looking prostheses, so I’d love to go on promoting the kind of fashion that shows off these prostheses. I want to sell original goods, and I want to release a children’s book too. And of course, I want to win a medal at the Tokyo Paralympic Games too! If I listed up all the things I want to do, it’d be in the hundreds, but I just want to do it all! That’s my life goal.

Maegawa said she became obsessed with making brooches and cooking copycat dishes during the stay-at-home period of the pandemic, saying, “It’s because I’ve got hobbies I can lose myself in that I can work as hard as I do for athletics”

In March 2021, her rival Tomomi Tozawa set a new Japan record in the 100m event. In the Japan Para Athletics Championships held the same month, Maegawa said, “It’s amazing” about Tozawa’s new record. She went on, however, “I’ve gotten to the point though where I see it as a battle with myself, and not with other athletes.” Maegawa, having strengthened her mental control, seems to have turned over a new leaf. We hope to see her at the Tokyo Paralympic Games, jumping for a medal, enjoying herself whole-heartedly.

text by TEAM A
photo by Hiroaki Yoda

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