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Tomomi Ichikawa of Rowing Wins a Qualifier, and with It, a Ticket to Tokyo 2020

The Asia and Oceania Olympic and Paralympic Qualification in Rowing was held from May 6-7 at the Sea Forest Waterway. The tournament was a qualifier for the rowing sport in the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games, with the venue the same one athletes would compete in in Tokyo 2020. The Paralympic events, which were held on the 7th, saw Tomomi Ichikawa (KOZARU Rowing Team) of PR1 Women’s Single Scull face her Sri Lankan rival, Samith Samanmalee Gowinnage Dona, in a 1-v-1 race, eventually winning first place and becoming the first rowing athlete in Japan to qualify for Tokyo 2020.

PR1 Men’s Single Scull was a race amongst four overseas athletes. Mahesh Jayakodi from Sri Lanka won the race easily, pumping his right fist into the air at the finish line.

Mahesh Jayakodi of Sri Lanka, who was crowned champion of the PR1 Men’s Single Scull event

A Slot at Her First Paralympic Games

Ichikawa, who turns 42 this year, had pulled ahead of her Sri Lankan rival from the very start of the race, and worked hard to keep this lead for the whole 2,000m of the race. Her time was 12:51.40 minutes, over three minutes faster than that of her rival, and nearly a minute and 30 seconds faster than her time in the pre-qualifying sessions the previous day.

The main reason she’d been able to maintain her lead was the training she’d done for her core strength, and how much more power she was able to put into her rowing, because of it. Whereas before she had to sit leaned back, thrusting her body backward to row, she could now, with her stronger core, move her body back while bent forward, allowing her to transfer more energy into the water.

At the World Rowing Championships in 2019, she’d come in 14th—last—place. Since, she had tried all kinds of things to improve her performance, asking herself what she needed to do to overcome her weaknesses.

She rowed with everything she had to win the 2,000m race

Ichikawa had won this ticket to Tokyo 2020 after considerable effort. She said, looking back on the race and smiling, “I thought, if they let us do this 2,000m, I’ll have to do better than yesterday, do the things I wasn’t able to yesterday. I was pretty zig-zaggy yesterday, but today my path was straight.”

An Anxious Lead-Up to the Race

“If they let us do this,” Ichikawa had said. In these words were reflected a complex array of feelings. She’d known that if the race were held, and she won, she would qualify for Tokyo 2020. But if her rival couldn’t get to Japan, the race wouldn’t happen, and she’d have to wait for another opportunity to qualify. Everything had hinged on whether her rival would be able to get to Japan.

Ichikawa pulled ahead of her Sri Lankan rival (right, back) from the start of the race

Later, when her rival’s participation in the race was confirmed, it seemed everything would be alright, that the race was all set. And yet this was not the end of Ichikawa’s worries.

A member of her rival’s staff tested positive for COVID-19, which resulted in her rival dropping out of the preliminaries. It was unclear, until the very last minute, whether she’d be able to compete at all. Eventually, her rival’s PCR test came back negative, and the finals race did happen—but the whole ordeal had been extremely anxiety-inducing.

Outdoor Water Sports in a Wheelchair!?: Her Discovery of Rowing

Ichikawa, having discovered rowing at a recruitment workshop, now found herself with a ticket to the Paralympic Games

This will be Ichikawa’s first time competing in the Paralympic Games. She’d fractured her first lumbar vertebra in a snowboarding accident in 2012, while on a working holiday. The fractured vertebra had damaged her spinal cord, leaving her with disabilities in both of her legs.

She’d discovered rowing right before Rio 2016. She’d applied for a recruitment workshop in Tokyo in 2016, following the announcement that there’d be a Paralympic Games in Tokyo, and there, tried out a variety of sports. She became interested in rowing because it was an outdoor sport that was open to people in wheelchairs.

“I thought if you were in a wheelchair, you could maybe go to the pool, but not in actual bodies of water [outside], so I thought it was really cool.”

A staff member from the sports association, who’d been at the workshop, had said, “That beer you drink after training—now that’s the stuff!” She’d been drawn to that too. Once she actually started training, she realized she could use her height (174cm) to her advantage, and the potential of that spurred her into starting rowing in earnest.

“I Want to Show Everyone How Great I’m Doing”

Ichikawa waiting near the finish line, having completed the race ahead of her rival from Sri Lanka

This race had been her first since the Asia Rowing Cup in 2019. As such, there were issues to be discovered as well. She’d beaten her Sri Lankan rival handily, but her time had still been about 20 seconds slower than her goal time of 12:30 minutes.

“I couldn’t do it—couldn’t keep my pace consistent. The fastest people are in the 10-minute range, so I still have so much room to improve. Every second, every bit of improvement counts.”

Three years ago, Ichikawa had declared in an interview that her goal at the Paralympic Games was to win a gold medal.

“I haven’t really talked about this to many people, but I do have this feeling of, you know, now that my body’s like this, I have to at least win a gold medal. I think about the positives and negatives in my life, and I just feel like there’s been a lot more that’s been negative, so…”

Fueling these words is her wish to express, to the people who’ve only known her in the hospital or after the surgery, that she’s doing that much better.

Ichikawa said she’s always been undergoing mental training, so as not to get overwhelmed by the atmosphere of these tournaments; “I think I was able to do that today,” she said

And, as always, she thinks of her friends and family. After the race, she described her joy at being able to compete in Tokyo 2020.

“Now, with this [COVID] situation, we don’t really know what’s going to happen, but it does feel great to be able to show my friends and family, who’ve supported me all this time, how great I’m doing.”

Until she’d turned 30, she’d worked summers at the beach and winters at snowboarding centers. As such, she has many friends she’s made through surfing and snowboarding.

Now that Ichikawa’s place in Tokyo 2020 has been set, she’ll spend the next three months training, driven by the gratitude she feels for all those who have supported her in her journey.

Results of the Asia and Oceania Olympic and Paralympic Qualification in Rowing

PR1 Women’s Single Scull:
1st Place: Tomomi Ichikawa / 2nd Place: Samith Samanmalee Gowinnage Dona (Sri Lanka)

PR1 Men’s Single Scull:
1st Place: Mahesh Jayakodi (Sri Lanka) / 2nd Place: Egamberdiev Kholmurod (Uzbekistan)
/ 3rd Place: Pooyin Komnuan (Thailand)

This qualifier for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games was held at the Sea Forest Waterway

text by TEAM A
photo by X-1

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