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Youngest Medalist! 14-Year-Old Miyuki Yamada Won Silver in the 100m Backstroke with a Blazing Start

On August 25, competitions for the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games began. Miyuki Yamada finished in second place in the women’s 100m backstroke (S2) swimming final with a time of 2 minutes and 26.18 seconds, winning the silver medal. When asked how she felt after the race in the press interview area, she was all smiles and blurted, “I’m very excited and very happy. It was also so much fun.”

She didn’t realize she had become Japan’s youngest medalist until someone mentioned it

At 14 years old, Yamada is the youngest member of Team Japan. She became the first Japanese athlete to win a medal at the Tokyo Paralympic Games and also the youngest medalist in Japan’s Paralympic history. The title used to be held by Yoshinori Shimazu, who was 16 when he won the bronze medal in athletics at the New York 1984 Paralympic Games.

Yamada said she didn’t realize she had become the youngest medalist until someone mentioned it during an interview right after the race. “I just found out during an interview. I’m really surprised, but I know it wasn’t just my strength alone. It was thanks to all the people who cheered me on,” she said, expressing her gratitude to those who had supported her.

Yamada’s blazing start was the key to her achievement. Supported by her coach, she took up her starting position in lane 3 with her body pulled into a tight bundle, ready to kick off with both feet. She looked half the size of the swimmer in lane 2, who had her arms fully stretched out. Nevertheless, the instant the race began, Yamada propelled herself through the water and accelerated rapidly. She was the top swimmer for most of the first 50 meters.

Just before the turn, Yamada was overtaken by the swimmer in lane 4, representing Singapore, but still made the turn at 1 minute and 6.65 seconds, which was 3 seconds faster than during the preliminary race. The two of them swam ahead, leaving the others behind. Although Yamada’s speed dropped near the end, she was comfortably ahead of the third swimmer and finished in second place, winning the silver medal.

Full scores for making an outstanding improvement on her preliminary performance!

Another big reason for her win was her ability to improve on her performance during the preliminary race, which had been held that morning. She was overcome with nerves, which made her stiffen up. She said she was surprised when her body started shivering uncontrollably the moment she got into the water.

After the race, she said, “It was partly because I suddenly got into the cold water, but I think I was nervous too. It was the first time I felt the nerves, not just mentally but also physically, so I was really surprised.” In terms of how the race went, she said, “My legs kind of stiffened and stopped moving. I’m going to do stretches and make sure my body stays warm so that I can keep moving during the second half of the race.” She was referring to the issue of her speed slowing down during the final 50 meters.

In the preliminary race, Yamada came in third place overall with a time of 2 minutes and 34.35 seconds. Whether she could bring out her best in the final race depended on whether she could control her nerves. “In the end, I kind of shrugged and thought, ‘I’m going to have fun even if I’m nervous.’ And I did have fun, which let me swim like I always do.” She let her youthfulness take over and gave it everything she had. As a result, she swam 3 seconds faster during the first half of the race and also kept up her speed during the second half, swimming 5 seconds faster than during the preliminary. The race showed how Yamada clearly overcame her earlier issues.

After the race, Yamada looked back on her outstanding performance.
“Both the start and turn were 100 times better than during the preliminary race, so I’m very happy. I give myself full scores. Even though I pushed myself during the first half, my speed didn’t drop much during the second half. In the preliminary, I really slowed down, so I’m glad I was able to keep up the speed in the final race.”

A 14-year-old with so many possibilities in front of her

Yamada began swimming at the age of 5 as supportive therapy for pediatric asthma, which led her to this grand stage. She was initially a freestyle swimmer, but in February last year, she was reclassified from the S3 class to S2, which is for athletes with a heavier impairment and doesn’t have a freestyle event. It has been a year and a half since she switched to backstroke. In addition to her kicks, which she has confidence in, she also learned to move her upper body in a way that reduces water resistance, enabling her to swim faster. In January and March 2021, she set new Japanese records. Although she was not able to set a new Japanese record this time, she fearlessly stood on the world’s greatest stage, demonstrated her outstanding ability, and achieved the amazing feat of becoming the youngest Japanese Paralympian medalist.

Yamada is good at using her left leg even outside of swimming

Yamada was born without arms and her legs are of different lengths. Her left leg is slightly longer than her right, and she uses it skillfully and impressively. When her name is called as she enters the pool area, it’s her left foot that she raises to respond. During the award ceremony, her coach put the medal around her neck and she blinked rapidly, savoring the dreamlike moment. She grasped the victory bouquet with her left foot and brought them to her nose to enjoy the smell.

This was Yamada’s first time on the grand stage. Her first Paralympic medal. She experienced many firsts and she’s only 14 years old. She’ll experience so much more from now. As a new heroine who became the youngest Japanese Paralympian medalist on the first day of the Games, her success will no doubt enliven Tokyo 2020 and encourage all the other athletes of Team Japan. The first medal won by Japan is one of great possibilities and value.

Yamada (left) smiling during the awards ceremony
photo by kyodo

edited by TEAM A
text by Takaya Hirano
photo by Takashi Okui

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