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Uran Sawada of Athletics: The Returning Long Jumper Discusses Setbacks, Eyes Tokyo 2020 Gold Medal

Uran Sawada holds the Japan record in the long jump and 100m events (T12 Class; visual impairment) in athletics. The Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games will be the first time she will be back on the Paralympic stage since she competed in Beijing 2008 at the age of 17. A medal contender for the long jump event, she plans to use her flexibility—acquired through core training and yoga—to show off a dynamic jump. We asked her about her experiences training in para athletics.

The Beijing Paralympic Games, Her First International Tournament

The Beijing 2008 Paralympic Games was Sawada’s very first international tournament. Her vision had declined dramatically after entering junior high school, and she’d been diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa, a disease that limits one’s field of vision. Nowadays, she is mostly unable to see in the center of her vision, and can see only vaguely in her side vision.

Uran Sawada (hereafter “Sawada”): My parents noticed my eyesight wasn’t good when I was about six, but for a while it didn’t cause any major problems for me. It was only when I got into junior high that there were more issues—I wouldn’t be able to react to a bike that popped out on the sidewalk, for example, or I’d be doing athletics training, and I’d get hit in the face with the weighted ball. At first I thought I just wasn’t paying enough attention, but really, my eyesight was getting worse.

Before being diagnosed, she’d found herself feeling hopeless about the future. This would change, however, when she began to attend a school for the blind, where she learned that with the right skills, she could continue living as she’d always had. Athletics had been one thing she’d found out she could continue. It only took her a year of competing in para athletics tournaments to make it to the Paralympic Games.

“I was an active child,” said Sawada, who noticed her decline in vision while training for athletics in junior high school

Sawada: It was right after I started going to this new school that I found out I’d be competing in the Tokyo preliminaries of the All-Japan Parasports Championships, as part of my P.E. class. So I started training. We had guides with us during the training, so I didn’t feel that terror I’d feel, that I was going to run into things or other people. I could run the same way I’d had before my vision declined, and it was really, really fun. During class, my teacher (and mentor) Shinju Miura asked me if I wanted to compete in athletics for real, and so I started getting more and more into it.

Sawada competed in the 100m and long jump events at the Tokyo preliminaries, getting results that, though unofficial, exceeded the qualifying standards for the Beijing Paralympic Games. From there, it all happened very quickly. She qualified for Beijing 2008, becoming the youngest member of the Japan national team at 17 years old; set a new personal record in the long jump event, exceeding her previous record by approximately 30cm, at 4.93 meters, and coming in 8th; and coming in 13th in the 100m event, with a time of 14.18 seconds.

Sawada: I did the best I could. But now that I look back on it, I don’t think I was really in the right place emotionally—like my feelings hadn’t caught up. I didn’t feel like I’d been able to compete properly against the foreign athletes. It made me think that the next time I got to the Paralympic Games, I’d want to be there as a medalist. That was when I got into that mentality.

――Four years later, however, there was no sign of Sawada in London.

Sawada: In Beijing, I’d been in a lighter-disability class called T13. But a year or two before London, there was this debate about whether long jump should be held for that class, and everything was kind of up in the air for a while, which was frustrating. My vision was also getting worse, and I stopped being able to run as fast as I could, out of fear that I’d run into something.

Sawada’s mentor, Miura, has been an essential part of her athletic career (Photo: 2017 Japan Para Athletics Championships)

Her difficulty seeing also led to difficulties in learning new techniques.

Sawada: Sure, I could run a lot, but at the time, I didn’t know how to learn new techniques while not being able to see. Long jump especially is a technique-based event, where it’s really important to be able to watch someone do something, and imitate them. Back then, I was using images from a digital camera to check my form, but with my eyesight, I couldn’t see a lot of the details in the movements. I struggled to get better after Beijing. I just couldn’t make it to my goal of 5 meters, and it was a true struggle.

Upon graduating from Rikkyo University, she decided to distance herself from the sport.

Sawada: I knew if I wanted to stay in the sport after getting a job, I’d have to look around to see if I could be employed as an athlete. I chose not to take that route, deciding I wanted to acquire the skills I needed to work in society, then go back to athletics when I felt good and ready for it. If I really wanted to go for the Paralympic Games, I wouldn’t be able to do it alone—I’d have to involve other people. And at that point, I just wasn’t ready to devote myself to that.

Brought Back by the Growth of Her Fellow Athletes

Sawada began working for a beverage manufacturer in 2013, putting in long hours in the marketing division. So when it was announced that the Paralympic Games would be held in Tokyo, she wasn’t moved by the news. Come 2014, however, she’d forgotten the worries she’d had about athletics, and found that the straightforward desire to compete again, to do athletics again, was building up in her once more.

Sawada: I was stunned at how widely the Incheon 2014 Asian Para Games was being reported in the media. I also found out that fellow athletes like Sato Tomomi and Saki Takakuwa, who’d been with me since the Asian Youth Para Games in 2009, were doing really well, getting good results. That was when I thought to myself, “I want to go back to this. I want to do this again too.” It was a big turning point for me.

From here, Sawada began training with the support of those like Miura. After work, she’d head to facilities that were open until 11PM, getting her training in that way. She lived this way for over two years. Indeed, it was in 2017 that her efforts came to fruition, when she finally broke past the 5-meter wall that had been her obstacle for so many years. She’d jumped 5.03 meters—a new Japan record.

Sawada is known for her dynamic jumps; she is currently training in the scissors style of jumping, which makes use of the speed from the run-up (Photo: 31st Japan Para Athletics Championships in 2020)

Sawada: It was after I’d quit my job at my previous company, and a few days after I’d started working my current job, in June. I just remember thinking, “Finally.” It brought tears to my eyes.

Upon returning to the sport, Sawada found herself placed in the T12 class—a class where athletes are able to receive the support of a guide runner—due to her decline in vision. This freed her from the terror of running into other people, and also brought some good luck her way—Ryuhei Shiokawa, her current guide runner. With this addition of Shiokawa in August 2017, “Team Uran” began to take shape. Its goal was to win Sawada a gold medal at the Tokyo Paralympic Games.

Sawada: “Team Uran” is made up of my mentor Miura, my long jump coach Toshihisa Miyazaki, and Shiokawa. Shiokawa at first was my physical trainer. But when I told him I wanted to do the 100m too, but didn’t have a guide runner, he offered to do it for me.

With the addition of Shiokawa to the team, Sawada began to work seriously on improving her form for the 100m event. The combination of Miyazaki’s detailed instruction and the work she was doing for the 100m led to changes in her jump. At the Beijing 2018 World Para Athletics Grand Prix, she beat her own Japan record, jumping an astounding 5.70 meters—a jump only 4 centimeters under the Asia record.

Sawada training with her guide Shiokawa (right) (Photo: Training camp in Okinawa in December 2020)

Sawada: When I first started training with Shiokawa for the 100m, it was the first time I’d ever run with a guide, so I remember I’d end up just matching his pace. So we started by making sure that I could run as fast as I could. After that, I trained by running behind him, and after a while, I finally started to understand the arm and leg movements that are the basics for this event.

The Right Environment for Learning Techniques

Miyazaki, on his end, taught Sawada the basics of long jump.

Sawada: The first thing Miyazaki taught me was what long jump is—what it is, how it’s done. It felt like the first time I’d learned about the techniques involved in long jump, and it really made a difference, especially in my mid-air movements. I think that’s what led to my results in Beijing.

One reason Sawada had previously distanced herself from athletics was that she hadn’t known how to learn new skills and techniques. Blessed with this new team, however, she had everything she needed to learn these techniques, and her results showed the quick and immense progress she was making.

Sawada: I couldn’t have done it alone. I really feel like everyone’s support has made the impossible possible for me. All these people, fighting the fight with me, have made me stronger. So when I compete, I do it to give back to these people who have supported me.

Nowadays, she’s even a medal contender for the Tokyo Paralympic Games. She shows considerable enthusiasm, especially for the long jump event.

Sawada: My goal for long jump is to get past the 6-meter mark, and win a gold medal. I think the line for winning a medal will probably be around 5.70 meters, so I’ll have to beat my personal record first. For the 100m I’m aiming for 12 seconds flat, to make it to the finals.

Sawada discussed her hopes and motivations for the Tokyo Paralympic Games in an online interview

Of course, she’s also thinking about what to do to make these things happen.

Sawada: I’ll have to keep working on my movements, my muscle memory—make it so I can be my best all the time. Even just one thing being off could throw the whole thing off-balance, so I have to make sure to be careful with every movement. It’ll be an incremental process, really acquiring these techniques, but I know that’s what it takes to achieve my dream, and I won’t skip steps.

Solidifying the foundation of her techniques will surely be a great way for her to jump as big as she wants on the world stage. Sawada’s positive attitude, her optimism, come from the steady progress she is making in her day-to-day training, and her love for her comrades, who love athletics just as much as she does. Now, 13 years from her time at the Beijing Paralympic Games, it’s time for Sawada to shine—this time in Tokyo.

text by TEAM A
photo by X-1

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