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An Nishida Never Thinks “I Can’t”: The Pride Hidden Behind a Top Swimmer’s Smile

Her arms rise above the water, then plunge back in, legs kicking powerfully to propel her forward. An Nishida’s whole body undulates like a wave, leaving water tracks in the wake of her butterfly stroke. In a sense, they are like a reflection of her swimming career, rising and falling, then rising again, moving ever forward. It was always her dream to participate in the Paralympic Games, bolstered by the lessons she learned from a famed swimmer, but the road there was an uphill climb from her career’s hardest moment.

Her dream of participating in the Paralympic Games was born during high school

Nishida began swimming when she was in elementary school. The reason was because she wanted to participate in the physical education class with everyone else. Although she has congenital impairments in her arm and leg (upper left arm deficiency and a defect in her right thigh bone), she says she never felt inconvenienced. More than anything, she never thinks she can’t do something.

An Nishida (hereafter “Nishida”): Swimming classes in the lower elementary school grades was like playing and splashing around in the water, but it was a lot of fun. Since I didn’t want to be told to sit on the side and watch because of my impairment, I started learning to swim. If someone else can do it, I don’t have a reason to believe I can’t. My parents didn’t say things like, “We need to help you because you have an impairment” or “You can’t do that because it’s dangerous.” They let me experience a lot from when I was a child, which is how I turned out to be the way I am.

Nishida loved sports from when she was a child

In junior high school, Nishida was a member of the school’s table tennis club. She also loved riding her bicycle around town. A through-and-through sports lover, she chose to attend Kawagoe Girls’ High School because it had a 50m pool. She joined the swimming club, where she improved her skills through friendly rivalry against able-bodied members and swam with impressive times. She was later invited to join a club team that included top national swimmers with impairments and that was when she started dreaming of taking on the world.

Nishida: The swimmer I respect the most is Takayuki Suzuki (50m breaststroke gold medalist and captain of the Japanese delegation at the Beijing 2008 Paralympic Games). When you’re in high school, it’s easy to say “I want to go to the Paralympic Games” and “I want to win a medal” without knowing anything about it. I was the same. When I said that to Takayuki, he asked me, “Really? Then tell me what you should be doing now to make that happen.” It was a strict lesson taught out of love and I realized I shouldn’t say things so lightly. Takayuki is a person who is steadfast, self-assured and isn’t swayed by others. I started thinking how I could become more like him. Gradually, I realized that I shouldn’t focus so much on simply swimming fast without regard for anything else. Rather, I wanted to become an athlete who people want to cheer on.

As Nishida continued her efforts to reach the international stage, she started seeing hope in 2015, the year she graduated from high school. She changed her butterfly stroke from two arms to one and cleared the qualifying time to enter the World Para Swimming Championships, which she hadn’t been able to do until then. She continued to set new Japanese records and also qualified to participate in the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games. However, she wasn’t able to clear the qualifying time at the delegation selection tournament, so she was not selected.

More determined than anybody, Nishida worked hard to reach Tokyo 2020

Nishida: Since I was able to shorten my time by using just my right arm, I was really hoping to go to Rio. But I wasn’t able to meet the qualifying time for the Japanese delegation, and neither was I chosen to be among the seven out of ten qualified athletes who were able to join the delegation through the recommendation system. It was the hardest moment I had to face in my swimming career. But thanks to that, I was able to throw myself into training with more determination than anyone to participate in the Paralympic Games. I vowed to never again live through that sort of disappointment.

It was by no means an easy journey. While Nishida earned a ticket to the 2017 World Para Swimming Championships the following year, the tournament was postponed due to an earthquake that struck the host country Mexico. Japan decided not to participate. Then the next year, in 2018, the rules for swimming strokes were revised and the single-arm butterfly was no longer allowed. This caused Nishida’s results to fall and she wasn’t able to qualify for the delegation.

Nishida: I spent about half a year feeling down after failing to make it to Rio. I eventually shook myself up and told myself I’d work so hard so that when I looked back four years from now, I’d know there was nothing more I could have done. But then the swimming rules were revised and there was no longer a stroke I could use to compete on an international level. So failing to make it to Rio, not being able to participate in World Para Swimming Championships, and then the rules revision were three big blows that sent me to rock bottom.

Nishida finally won a ticket to Tokyo 2020 after overcoming multiple challenges

Backed up against the wall, Nishida considered changing to a different sport. On weekends, she took the first train in the morning to Shuzenji, where she started to train for cycling. Then an unexpected turning point came in February 2019: Nishida’s international impairment class was raised to S7, which is one heavier than the class she used to be in. The Paralympic Games’ butterfly event is 100m for the S8 class, but 50m for the S7 class. The shorter distance gave Nishida a chance even though the butterfly required the use of both arms.

Nishida: I didn’t think I could be reclassified. I feel bad for having troubled the people involved in cycling. But thanks to the cycling training, I now have a stronger kick, and the 500m time trial, which I was good at, had me peddling furiously along the velodrome track for 40 seconds, which is a little longer than the time I used to swim. So as a result, I was able to achieve greater power and endurance.

Setting overwhelming new personal records during COVID-19

Nishida set new personal records at the Japan Para Swimming Championships and then again at the Japan Para Championships
photo by X-1

After being reclassified, Nishida once again focused on swimming. During the time she couldn’t use the pool due to COVID-19 restrictions, she strengthened her left arm, which is the one with the deficiency. She built up the muscles until she could feel them along her arm, and this balanced her swimming style. She also worked on her stamina by doing middle-distance swims. Her time was 37.74 seconds at the Japan Para Swimming Championships in March, and 37.01 seconds at the delegation selection tournament in May. Her results broke the Japanese record by a wide margin and awarded her a ticket to Tokyo 2020.

Nishida: The 50m record for able-bodied swimmers is 21 seconds while mine is 37 seconds. That’s about the same time as the middle-distance record for able-bodied swimmers. So I started doing middle-distance swim practices so that I can maintain my speed during the first half of the race. It’s really hard every time, but thanks to that training, my lap time during the second half of the race is getting decidedly better.

Nishida’s time of 37.01 seconds is the sixth fastest in the world in the 50m butterfly event that she’ll swim at Tokyo 2020. The fastest time is in the 33-second range and the second fastest is in the 34-second range. Her international rivals are strong, which will make it hard for Nishida to reach a medal. Nevertheless, she’s a born fighter and hates to lose. Her pride as a top athlete also drives her to fling away any and all negative possibilities and keep moving powerfully forward.

Nishida continues to train rigorously for the upcoming Games and shines with a sense of fulfillment

Nishida: It’s thanks to all the people who supported me that I was able to make it on the team to Tokyo 2020. I feel so grateful and I want to give back to them by performing well. By coincidence, the day of my race is my birthday. I’m going to do my best to make it the best birthday present for myself and also make it a race that viewers watching on TV will remember. While my personal record right now is 37.01 seconds, my goal for the preliminaries is 36.3 seconds. I spend every day looking at that number. In the finals, I want to shorten the time even more. Before I think about winning a medal or raising my rank, I’m going to first and foremost focus on performing well. The results will follow. I’m able to aim this high because my coach believes in me more than I do and is working harder than I am. So there’s still a lot more that I can do.

At the time of the delegation selection tournament, three months remained until the Paralympic Games. This limited timeframe will make it difficult for Nishida to shorten her time to challenge the world’s top swimmers, but she hasn’t given up hope. “Between March and May, I was able to shorten my personal record by 0.7 seconds. There’s more time between now and the Games than the time I had back then, so I don’t think it’s impossible.” On the grand stage that she always dreamed of, she’ll show us how far she has evolved through continuous training and her unwavering belief that she can still keep fighting and keep doing better.

text by Takaya Hirano
photo by Hiroaki Yoda

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