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The Culmination of a Career: Ikumi Fujii and the Women’s National Wheelchair Basketball Team

The Japanese women’s national wheelchair basketball team will compete in the Paralympic Games for the first time since Beijing 2008. One of the joint captains of the team, Ikumi Fujii considers Tokyo 2020 to be the culmination of her career as a competitive athlete. How has she developed herself and her team?

Her weapon is her shooting skill, which she improved on a men’s team

In her third year in junior high school, Fujii developed malignant osteosarcoma in her right leg. Her femur and knee joint were removed and replaced with artificial joints. She started playing wheelchair basketball in 2002 when she was 20 years old. Since she had been an active member of the basketball club in her junior high school, she quickly improved. In just three years, she made it to the national team, but she said she had felt something lacking about wheelchair basketball compared to basketball for able-bodied athletes. However, when she saw the world’s top-level athletes playing on an international stage, those misgivings evaporated.

Ikumi Fujii (hereafter “Fujii”): In 2006, I participated as a rookie in the IWBF Wheelchair Basketball World Championship held in Amsterdam, Netherlands. The level of skill I saw there was completely beyond what I had imagined of the world. It was like a wake-up call. Particularly on the US team, even the low pointers were shooting point after point with one hand, and their shooting forms were really cool. I realized that both I and the Japanese team would have to train at a much higher level if we wanted to compete on an equal footing against the world. So after I returned to Japan, I decided to transfer to Miyagi Max Wheelchair Basketball Club.

Miyagi Max is a club team that has been led by Yoshiaki Iwasa (current head coach of the Japanese women’s national wheelchair basketball team) since its creation. The powerful team has produced many players who went on to become members of the men’s national team. Back then, the team consisted of men only. So when Fujii said she wanted to join, “Yoshiaki kept asking me ‘Are you really going to join? Really?’” she recalls with a laugh. After transferring, she endured the rigorous training at Miyagi Max and worked on her shots, which became her ultimate weapon.

Fujii: Miyagi Max accepted me as a teammate from the start, so I was very grateful for that. Wanting to become a player who they could count on during games, I worked on shooting from outside the three-point line, which is some distance away from the hoop. It’s important to first of all become free in that area, and then what I focused on was to be able to shoot the ball quickly before my opponents close in on me. Since I’m a high pointer, I also need to play close to the hoop. So I also perfected the fadeaway shot, which is backing my wheelchair away from my opponents who try to come into contact with me and shooting the ball.

Fujii acutely felt how slow Japan was progressing compared to world rivals who had leveled up

Training with male team members with skills on par with the national team, Fujii grew strong enough to compete evenly against rivals on a world stage. In 2008, she competed at the Beijing Paralympic Games and helped her team win fourth place. After that, however, the women’s national team failed to qualify for the next two Games.

Fujii: Our defeat in the preliminaries for London 2012 was so bitter I still remember it clearly today. Japan, Australia and China were in a three-way struggle, but in the end, we lost based on points difference. We had never lost to China before, so it was a huge disappointment.

Four years later, we went against Australia and China again in the preliminaries for Rio 2016, but both teams had grown stronger from their experiences at London 2012. In contrast, we were playing the same basketball that we had played four years ago. We lost—obviously. We were made acutely aware that we needed to change something if we wanted to win against teams that had competed on the world stage.

Fujii mastered more shot variations to add to her arsenal

After the team’s loss in the Rio 2016 preliminaries, Fujii reassessed her skills and whether they were really a match against the world. Before the Rio 2016 preliminaries, Fujii had married and given birth. Like a superhuman, she had to balance childrearing, household responsibilities and work in addition to her basketball career. Although she has the help of her husband, who is a member of the same team, her days are like a whirlwind of activities. Nevertheless, Fujii has managed to transform the busy life into personal growth.

Fujii: The time I can spend training naturally becomes limited. So to train efficiently in a short amount of time, I changed my shot practices to focus more on accuracy than sheer number of shots. I started counting how many shots I made and how many were successful for each position or within set times. That way, I could calculate my rate of success. This made me concentrate on every shot, because I couldn’t let any of them go to waste. It led to significantly improving both the quality of my training and the stability of my shots. I can’t even stand to look at videos of my shots around the time of Beijing 2008 since they’re so embarrassing.

Fujii explained how her extremely busy lifestyle led to improving the quality of her training

As a captain

Fujii began to lead the team as the captain as they prepared for the Indonesia 2018 Asian Para Games. She dedicated herself to building the team.

Fujii: Hierarchies inevitably tend to form in team sports. But to win, each player has to play independently, and for that to happen, I think it’s important to build an equal relationship regardless of age or experience. For that reason, I always tried to actively communicate with all the players, but since becoming captain, I’ve started pestering and hanging out with the younger players in particular (laughs). To play well as a team, you need to draw out the best in each member. How we talk to them depends on the person we’re talking to, so I decided to first get to know everyone better.

Player meetings used to only be held during competitions, but since Fujii became captain, she started holding them during training too.

Fujii: During player meetings, I encouraged bench members and young players to speak out too. But it’s also important not to force them to. When they did speak up, I did my best to create a casual atmosphere and listen carefully to their opinions. Oftentimes, opinions are met with responses that judge them as good or bad, or acceptable or unacceptable, but that doesn’t lead to growth. So we used the opinions as a building block to put our heads together and discuss how we can improve. We repeated this over and over, and now, we’re a team that can voice our thoughts frankly to one another regardless of our hierarchical standings. The mood within the team has gotten a lot better, and above all, that good vibe is appearing on the court as well.

Fujii got to know each and every member in an effort to create a united team

Indeed, during the Ariake Special Strengthening Games in May, the team’s good rapport and heightened motivation were clear to see. There were moments when they struggled during the games, such as having difficulty scoring shots against the men’s team due to their greater heights, but they’re training hard with the men and making significant progress in their preparations for Tokyo 2020.

Fujii: Tokyo 2020 is finally here. Our strategy is going to be based on transition basketball, where we quickly transition between offense and defense. The focus is on speed and putting a lot of pressure on our opponents with both a strong offense and a strong defense. If we can keep that up for 40 minutes, I’m positive our goal of winning a medal will be within our reach.

For me, personally, Tokyo 2020 is the culmination of my athletic career of around 20 years. I’m going to bring out everything I’ve learned until now with the hope of contributing to the team’s victory. I also want to make this an opportunity to pass onto the next generation. From now until the day of our first game, I’m going to focus on physical conditioning so that I can enter the court in my best form.

As the culmination of her athletic career, Fujii vows to put on her best performance at Tokyo 2020 and aim for the podium

Fujii will take on this final battle with the team she dedicated herself to building. What sort of performance will they put up? We can’t wait to see.

text by TEAM A
photo by X-1

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