Battle to Qualify for Tokyo 2020 Heats Up: World Triathlon Para Series in Yokohama
The World Triathlon Para Series (Yokohama), the world’s top-tier triathlon tournament, was held in Yokohama on May 15. Because the tournament was cancelled last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, there’d been a two-year gap between the previous tournament and this one. That, and the fact that the tournament contributed points toward the rankings the athletes would need to qualify for the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games, meant that the tournament attracted top athletes from all over the world. Hard battles were fought in each of the disability categories, amidst strict COVID measures. In the end, four Japanese athletes (1 male, 3 female) made it onto the winners’ podium, more than in the same tournament in 2019.
Hata Sets Her Sights on Her Second Consecutive Paralympic Games
Hata is exploring how best to pedal one-legged on her bike, taking hints from her rival, a fellow one-legged cyclist
Yukako Hata of PTS2 had been in a position to qualify for the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games even before the tournament. Though bested by her rival, Melissa Stockwell (U.S.), she came in second, bringing her that much closer to competing in her second consecutive Paralympic Games.
Due to the pandemic, it’d been a year and three months since she’d been able to race against an overseas athlete. In a press conference the day before the race, she said, “It all comes down to how far ahead I can get on the bike. I have to believe in the training I put in in Okinawa [during the training camp], and give it everything I’ve got, starting with the swim.”
Hata found herself trailing her rival for the entirety of the race. She fell a minute behind in the swim, then moved onto cycling—where she’d really have to prove herself. In 2019, Hata decided not to wear her prosthetic for the cycling section, instead pedaling the bike with one leg, in order to improve her time on the bike and cut down on the time she’d lose during transitions. “I did this because there was this time [in August 2019, in a pre-tournament held in Odaiba, Tokyo, for Tokyo 2020] when it was really, really hot, and my prosthesis almost came off [from the sweat]. I knew I couldn’t waste time putting the thing back on during the real Paralympic Games, so I decided to go it one-legged. It took me a year to make the change,” she said, looking back on her decision.
She’d been determined, going into the cycling portion. At the end of it, however, she found herself trailing by more than two minutes, and now a total of eight minutes behind her rival. She promised she’d prove herself, however, in the real thing. “Given that I lost, I don’t feel very much improvement. Now that I’ve decided not to use a prosthesis, I want to give this one-legged thing all that I’ve got, so that I can be the best I can.”
Stockwell herself had lost to Hata in the Paratriathlon World Cup in Australia last February
Though frustrated with her own performance, Hata was happy to reunite with her rival. After the race, she was seen with tears in her eyes. “Training during the pandemic, it really, really helped to have this rival. I’d worked so hard, all for the day when I’d be able to race her again…” she said. She went on, praising her rival, “I’m so happy she came to Yokohama. [Stockwell] is an amazing athlete.”
Two Athletes with a Fondness for Yokohama
The PTVI (visual disability) class found Atsuko Maruo of the Women’s event coming in 3rd place, and Satoru Yoneoka of the Men’s event coming in 4th place.
“The course is basically muscle memory by now,” Maruo said. This Yokohama tournament is close to her heart, with her having competed in it since 2012. In the press conference the day before the tournament, she discussed her attachment to the tournament, saying, “This will probably be the last year I compete in the Elite division. I want to make it a race that shows how grateful I am for everyone who’s supported me.”
Maruo said she had spent the stay-at-home period of the pandemic training closely with her guide. “I have to believe in her, use every bit of her strength, while also giving it everything I’ve got,” she said. And she did just that—expending every bit of her energy, so that when she crossed the finish line, she found herself collapsing on the ground.
Maruo gave it all she had, knowing that was the only thing she could do
Following the Asia Triathlon Championships in Hatsukaichi City, Hiroshima Prefecture, this April, Yoneoka had said, “As long as I can get in around 4th place in the Yokohama tournament, it won’t be impossible for me to qualify for Tokyo 2020.”
The last time Yoneoka had competed in this Yokohama tournament was in 2017, four years ago. As a local, from Kanagawa Prefecture, he’s another who has a special attachment to this tournament. “I have to get to a good place in the swim and cycling, and keep myself there during the run at the end,” he said, about his plan for the race. And that was exactly what he did, guide right there by his side, as he ran a determined race, coming in 4th place, 12 seconds behind his 3rd place rival.
“4th place isn’t really what I wanted, but I was able to give it all I had,” said Yoneoka (right)
Stronger Cycling Work, and a Step Toward Tokyo 2020
Mami Tani, who is now 8th in the Tokyo 2020 qualification rankings, is another athlete who had cast her hopes for Tokyo onto this Yokohama tournament. “I knew from the beginning that it’d be a toss-up,” said Tani. Her results were the same as in 2019: 2nd place in the PTS4 class, to which she belongs, and 5th place in the PTS5 class*, her class for Tokyo 2020. Though the results were the same, she seemed to feel very differently than she had in 2019, with none of the tears and frustration she had shown back then. “Before, I just couldn’t compete with their speed, but this time around, I felt on equal footing with the racers in PTS5.”
*Due to a consolidation of classes, Tani will compete in the PTS5 class, a lighter disability class than PTS4, in the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games.
She’d focused on improving her cycling work during her winter training, and it showed; though she was overtaken, her biking showed a distinct sense of determination. She discussed the improvements she’d felt in her performance, saying, “Until two years ago, I’d have races where people would pass me at the end of the cycling section. It was good in this race that I was able to keep it going into the run, so things wouldn’t just end for me there.”
Tani says she’ll work even harder on her biking, and on catching up in her run, as she works toward Tokyo 2020
Of course, it’s not all smooth sailing from here. Country-specific slots for triathlon are offered to the top nine racers in the Paralympic Games qualification rankings, managed by the International Triathlon Union (ITU). Tani knew that the results of this tournament could have her and her rivals climbing or dropping in the rankings, and so, she said, “I couldn’t let up, from that last lap to the last sprint.” She went on, “If I’d dropped one more ranking [which would drop me out of the qualification rankings for Tokyo 2020], it would’ve been pretty dangerous, in terms of my qualifying for Tokyo.” Still, she’d managed to hold her place, and keep her path to Tokyo open.
Two-Sport Paralympian Falters
Tsuchida fell behind in the swim—a delay that stayed with her until the very end of the race
Wakako Tsuchida, who aims to compete in the Paralympic Games in two sports, triathlon and wheelchair marathon, competed in the PTWC class of the tournament. Tsuchida is currently ranked 9th in the Tokyo 2020 qualification rankings, at the very border of the qualification standards. This Yokohama tournament had been good to her in the past, with her having won two consecutive titles in 2017 and 2018.
In the press conference the day before the recent Asia Triathlon Championships, Tsuchida had said, “The Paralympic Games are an important goal for me, a big motivating factor.” The day of the race, however, she’d come down with a fever, and had to drop out of the race. This tournament, she hoped, would be the fresh start she needed. In the end, however, she came in 7th place, not finding herself any closer to Tokyo.
There are still opportunities for Sato to qualify for Tokyo 2020
Keiichi Sato (PTS5), who has competed, consecutively, in both Summer and Winter Paralympic Games, has also continued on his journey toward Tokyo 2020. At the time of the tournament, he was ranked 11th in the Tokyo 2020 qualification rankings. He’d wanted to do well in this tournament in order to qualify for Tokyo, but found himself in a frustrating 9th place.
Last summer, he had tripped in a training camp and fractured his left shoulder in three places. He’d come in 2nd in the Asia Triathlon Championships, his first tournament after his recovery. And yet, he says, his time away from the sport had had a considerable effect. “It’s more than just the performance,” he said.
This season, the Summer and Winter Paralympic Games will be held the same year—a rather unprecedented occurrence. Sato, who also aims to compete in the Beijing 2022 Winter Paralympic Games in Nordic skiing, said he’ll have to figure it out as he goes along. “First, I’ll focus on the triathlon, and toward Tokyo 2020. I want to see how far this challenge will take me,” he said, steadfast as ever in his pursuit of both sports.
Uda, the one male racer who made it up to the winners’ podium from Japan, bringing him that much closer to Tokyo 2020
Other Japanese athletes working toward Tokyo 2020 include Hideki Uda (PTS4), who came in 3rd place, Junpei Kimura (PTWC), who came in 5th place, and Tetsuki Kaji (PTS5), who came in 8th place.
The battle to qualify for Tokyo 2020 will continue until July.
In training toward Tokyo, Kimura is motivated by the frustration he experienced in Rio 2016
photo by Satoshi TAKASAKI/JTU
Results of the World Triathlon Para Series (2021/Yokohama)
It was a great day for a triathlon, with water and air temperatures a little above 20 degrees Celsius; 67 elite triathlon racers competed in the tournament
photo by Satoshi TAKASAKI/JTU
There was restricted entry into the special venue in Yamashita Park, and people were asked not to cheer for the racers on the public sections of the course
text by TEAM A
photo by X-1