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2021 Japan Para Athletics Championships: Athletes, Each Facing Their Own Battles in Takamatsu

The 2021 Japan Para Athletics Championships, a World Para Athletics official tournament, was held from April 24-25 at YASHIMA Rexxam Field in Takamatsu City, Kagawa Prefecture. This was the 31st installment of the tournament, which began in 1991. The Japan Para Athletics Championships, normally held annually, had been cancelled last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, creating a two-year gap between this tournament and the previous one. Though it was decided at the last minute that the tournament would be held without spectators, it was still an important opportunity for top athletes to prove themselves, what with it being exactly four months before the start of the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games.

Indeed, for the athletes who had not yet qualified for Tokyo 2020, this was their last chance to update their high performance standards/ranking and fulfill their qualification requirements.

The Japan Para Athletics had put a particular emphasis on the 4x100m Universal Relay event, a new event at Tokyo 2020. Those who had not yet qualified for Tokyo 2020 could qualify if they were thought to be essential to this relay. Here, we focus mainly on the performance of these relay contenders.

The team for the Universal Relay event in this tournament (from right to left): Shunya Yamaji, Kengo Oshima, Yuka Takamatsu, Momoka Muraoka

What is the Universal Relay?

Four racers with different types of disabilities run a relay, touching the next runner (instead of handing off a baton) to deliver the race to the next runner. Teams consist of two men and two women. Only two racers are allowed to be from the lightest-disability class of their respective categories. The order of the runners and their categories are predetermined: the first runner must be from a vision disability class (T11, T12, T13), the second from a limb deficiency and/or impaired limb function class (T42, T43, T44, T46, T47, T61, T62, T63, T64), the third from a coordination disability class (T35, 36, 37, 38), and the fourth from a wheelchair racing class (T33, T34, T51, T52, 53, 54). The highlight of the event is the various teams’ different strategies; for instance, the racing order of the male and female racers.

Kengo Oshima: A Second Asia Record This Season

Kengo Oshima set a new Japan record, beating his own record, which he’d established only a month earlier. Oshima, a third-year student from Nagoya Gakuin University, had set a new Japan and Asia record of 11.46 seconds in the Men’s 100m (T64) event of the 119th Nippon Sport Science University Athletics Tournament, held on March 27. And on the first day of this tournament, held less than a month later, he’d extended this record to 11.37 seconds, in a giant leap toward qualification for Tokyo 2020. He was also crowned champion of the 200m event held on the second day, making him one of the most visible athletes in the tournament.

The strength he uses for running were cultivated in his years playing rugby in high school. “Whenever you dodge someone, or tackle them, you have to go from zero back to top speed. That’s been useful to me in these sprints, and it’ll probably be useful in the future too,” said Oshima.

Oshima’s sights are always set on first place, and he doesn’t like to lose. He’d bested Shunsuke Itani, who’d held the Japan and Asia records until March, in their second event in the tournament. His response, however, was measured. “I won, but I’m not happy with how I ran today. I want to bring more excitement to the T64 class—that’s the way I want to run.”

Tatsuru Ibusuki, training director of the Japan Para Athletics, lauded Oshima’s steady progress in the sport, describing him as a “sprinter showing us a glimpse of what Men’s T64 will look like in the future.” He expressed his anticipation, saying, “If I were to choose an MVP for this tournament, it’d definitely be him. He’s gotten faster and faster times since last year, and it seems he performed very well at the training camp for the universal relay.”

Oshima has seen remarkable progress, setting a new Asia record despite the headwind, and in doing so showing off his potential

Shunsuke Itani: Soldiering on Toward the Future

Though Itani had gotten a very good time—11.66 seconds for the 100m—he came in second, ceding his title as Japan’s fastest sprinter to Oshima. He was also unable to raise his high- performance ranking for Tokyo 2020. With this, his path toward Tokyo 2020 narrowed considerably. “This is where my dream, my challenge ends,” he said, devastated.

Though he was, of course, frustrated, he also expressed satisfaction for what he’d achieved, saying, “I did what I could.” Going into the 200m event on the second day of the tournament, he wiped the slate clean, telling himself, “I don’t care if my leg hurts, if I pull a muscle—all that matters is that I get it done, that I can say when it’s over that I had fun.” He came in 0.19 seconds behind Oshima with a time of 24 seconds, in second place. Looking back on the race, he stressed his actual performance over his time or ranking. “My top speed at the start, the lean-in, even the middle part of the race, was faster than anyone else. I ran a really good race.”

Itani had appeared in the para athletics scene about three years ago. He’d exhibited a meteoric rise, and had decided that he’d retire from the sport after Tokyo 2020. Now, however, he has declared his intention to continue with the sport, which leaves Paris 2024 and even Los Angeles 2028 within his reach.

We couldn’t be more excited to see what the future brings for Itani, who has helped raise the competitive level of the popular 100m (T64) event to such a great height in Japan.

Oshima’s arrival on the scene has shunted Itani (right) to second place; can he make it on the Japan national team as a member of the universal relay?

Sae Tsuji: A New Record, a Long Time Coming

It was after the 400m (T47) event, and Rio bronze medalist Sae Tsuji was celebrating, her expression radiant. Her time, 58.45 seconds, was a new Japan record—beating the one she herself had set about two years earlier. Expressed in her smile was perhaps a sense of relief, after the frustration and disappointment she had felt at her performance in the 32nd Japan Para Athletics Championships in March, and a real hope that a medal would be within reach for her in Tokyo 2020.

“There was a tailwind, and I used it in the first half too to boost my speed. I was feeling good today, so I was hoping to get something around 58.50. When I got a better time, I just felt like, ‘Yes!’” she said, expressing her satisfaction with her performance.

Of note in Tsuji’s run was the “weight” she wore on the end of her arm. Tsuji, who has a deficiency in her right arm, had until now worn a sports prosthesis when running her races. This time, however, she chose to wear a 160g weight. The brunt of the work in swinging her arms had occurred in the muscles from her arms to her collarbone. There were times when she ran long distances, however, when that area of her body would go numb, and she’d stop being able to swing her arms. After speaking to those around her, she chose to go from a prosthesis to a weight. She seemed to like her new setup, telling us, “With the prosthesis, I could really feel the air resistance at the ends of the hand, but with this, there’s none of that. It feels more like a pull on my elbow.”

Her time in this tournament put her on par with some of the top racers in the world rankings, giving her confidence toward a possible medal win in Tokyo 2020

Yuka Takamatsu: Star Sprinter to Be a Relay Runner?

Yuka Takamatsu (T38), who holds the Japan record for the 100m, 200m, and 400m events, was crowned champion of the 200m and 400m events in this tournament.

“28.97 seconds for the 200m is pretty good for the first race of the season. There was a tailwind in the first half of the 400m, so I had a good run, but the headwind in the second half made things difficult. I’ll have to work on my speed in the second half, and also my endurance,” she said, analyzing her performance in the race.

Takamatsu’s ranking puts her on the edge of qualifying for Tokyo 2020. There is anticipation, however, that she will be chosen as the third runner for the universal relay. She ran the Universal Relay event in this tournament as well, telling us later, “All of us working together, touching to pass the ‘baton,’ to try to get a time to win a medal. I think it’s such an interesting event.”

The universal relay comes down to the “taps” between runners; “I had such a hard time when I started running relays—I’d even trip sometimes,” Takamatsu said

Shunya Yamaji: A Seasonal Record to Kick Things Off?

Shunya Yamaji (T12), who holds the Japan record for the 100m and 200m events, is another runner being considered for the universal relay (first runner; visual disability). Though he’d hoped to fulfill the high-performance time of 11.10 seconds in the 100m event on this tournament, he ended up coming in short, at 11.43 seconds.

Though there is still some concern over the injury he suffered in the winter, Yamaji is not in bad condition. And of course, he wants more than anything to get into the team for the universal relay in Tokyo 2020. “I need to train harder for the 100m event, work on my corners, and I’ll be able to do even better in the relay,” he said, expressing his confidence for the future.

Yamaji, who set a season record in the 100m event, is aiming to become a member of the universal relay team

The Medal Contenders Show Off Their Progress

There were, of course, athletes in the tournament who had already qualified for Tokyo 2020. The medal contenders among them had improved their performance even during the pandemic, raising expectations toward their results in Tokyo 2020.

Tomoki Sato (T52) set a new tournament record in the 400m and 1,500m events; he later said he would need to work on his starting accuracy for the 400m, and his speed on the back straight of the 1,500m

Maya Nakanishi (T64) got 5.49m in the Long Jump event, beating her own tournament record and bolstering anticipation for a medal in Tokyo 2020

“I’m getting stronger and stronger,” said Daiki Akai (T20), who set a new Asia record in the 1,500m event; his desire to win had propelled him to set this record

Tomomi Tozawa (T63) set a new Asia record in the Long Jump event, a record made possible by the training she’d done on her endurance over the winter; Tokyo 2020 will be her first Paralympic Games

“I had a good takeoff, but my landing was bad,” said Atsushi Yamamoto (T63) of long jump; his preparation—all to perform to his absolute best at Tokyo 2020—seems to be going as planned

Results of the 2021 Japan Para Athletics Championships

text by TEAM A
photo by X-1

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