From Rivalry to Podium! Two Medals for Visually Impaired Runners Karasawa and Wada!
On August 27, the first day for athletics at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games, the men’s 5000m final was held at the Olympic Stadium. There, Kenya Karasawa (T11/blind) won the silver medal with 15 minutes and 18.12 seconds, and Shinya Wada (T11/blind) won the bronze medal with 15 minutes and 21.03 seconds. It was the first time two Japanese athletes stepped onto the same podium since the Tokyo Paralympic Games began, greatly encouraging the rest of the athletics team.
Karasawa had already experienced extreme heat in Dubai
The race was held under tough conditions that day, with temperatures rising to 32°C and 65% humidity.
But for Karasawa, this wasn’t the first race he ran in the extreme heat. He previously won the bronze medal at the 2019 World Para Athletics Championships held in Dubai, where temperatures likewise exceeded 30°C. “That gave me confidence, and I consider myself to be strong against the heat,” Karasawa said.
Another source of confidence came from his achievement of setting a new world record with 15 minutes and 9.94 seconds at the East Japan Corporate Athletics Championships held in May 2021. He said he made a conscious effort to run the first 4000 meters without tensing up, remaining relaxed, so that he could make the most of his greatest weapon, which is a powerful sprint along the final stretch of the race. For Tokyo 2020, he knew that if he could run that same race once again, he would be able to win.
Kenya Karasawa (right) representing Japan in athletics, and Koji Kobayashi (left), who was his sighted guide for the first 4000 meters
In perfect sync with his sighted guide
Karasawa started the race somewhat slow, making his way up from the fifth position to third. Koji Kobayashi, who was Karasawa’s sighted guide for the first 4000 meters said, “From the start, I was solely focused on getting Kenya in the third or fourth position without putting a burden on him. The positioning went really well.” Kobayashi also added that they were in perfect sync with each other, and the two of them kept up their smooth rhythm until the end.
During the second half of the race, two athletes from other countries widened their leads up front. Nevertheless, Karasawa said, “We had many different plans for different scenarios, including a quick start and a slow start. So the race went according to plan.” He didn’t feel rushed and made sure to stick to his strategy and stay relaxed.
“Let’s go for it in the final stretch!”
Karasawa picked up his pace significantly for the last 1000 meters. Hiroaki Mogi, who was his sighted guide for the last stretch said, “The runner in front seemed to be slowing down and looked like he was struggling, so I felt that we could overtake him during the last 400 meters.”
Karasawa gave an outstanding performance at his first Paralympic Games
Since Karasawa began to compete in earnest, Mogi returned to his hometown in Gunma, where he supported Karasawa’s training and competitions, while helping out at his family’s tomato farm. Karasawa places his utmost trust in Mogi, saying, “He’s been with me for so long, so he knows all my strengths and weaknesses.”
Mogi said, “Let’s go for it in the final stretch!” and Karasawa responded, finally pulling up ahead in the final lap. Unfortunately, he was overtaken when he had just 200 meters to go. “Since I was aiming for the gold medal, I was definitely disappointed,” he said. “But since I gave it everything I had and won silver, I’m really happy.” Despite not making it to the top of the podium, he had a look of fulfillment on his face for winning a medal at his first Paralympic Games.
The two Japanese athletes who stood on the same podium are not just rivals
Karasawa began running competitively after learning of a certain runner with a visual impairment like him competing at the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games. That runner was Shinya Wada, who won the bronze medal after finishing behind Karasawa. “Shinya is someone I aspire to be and also my rival,” Karasawa said. True to his words, they have been competing fiercely against each other at competitions both in Japan and abroad.
Shinya Wada (left) representing Japan in athletics, and Kengo Yajima (right), who was his sighted guide for the first part of the race
Wada, who was a leading figure in the 5000m event until Karasawa appeared, praised both of their hard work, saying, “Although we didn’t reach the gold medal, we both spurred each other on by aiming for gold. I’m glad we both won a medal.”
Previously, Karasawa said, “Running is a way of expressing gratitude.” To Karasawa, who works a full-time job while also committing himself to the sport, the silver medal was an achievement dedicated to all the people who have supported him so far.
edited by TEAM A
text by Kenichi Kume
photo by Takashi Okui