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The Unreached Tokyo Paralympic Games: Powerlifting’s Eri Yamamoto and the Trajectory of an Attempt

Behind the scenes of the opening of the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games were many athletes holding back tears. Powerlifting’s Eri Yamamoto was one of them. Although her dream of joining the Games did not come true, she left behind encouraging words that touched the hearts of many in the process of trying. This article looks back on those words as well as the trajectory of Yamamoto’s attempt.

The 20th All Japan Para Powerlifting International Invitational Championship
photo by Yoshio Kato

“This is not hopeless.”

June 2021: the final competition of the Dubai World Cup

Yamamoto started powerlifting in 2016, and her dream was to participate in the Paralympic Games. However, her last competition before Tokyo 2020 ended in all three of her lifts failing, and Yamamoto did not surpass the 65 kg Minimum Qualification Standard (MQS) needed for the women’s 55 kg class. The determination that she could not participate in Tokyo 2020 must have been deeply frustrating, but she remained resolutely positive:

“Today I didn’t succeed because my precision was poor, but when I think about my previous bad circumstances, I’m happy I could lift 65 kg. I can’t say it was a full step, but I took a half step forward. That’s why this is not hopeless.”

photo by Yoshimi Suzuki

By “bad circumstances,” Yamamoto was referring to the past two years in which she made little progress in her results, in particular to the chronic subacute thyroiditis that assailed her in August 2020. Every day was an anxious one, with Yamamoto unable to practice for more than two months. Medication also caused her to gain weight, and she debated whether to join the Japan Championship in January 2021 but swore to fulfill her duty as a para-athlete and appeared in the 61 kg group, not her usual weight class.

“I think the message para-athletes most want to communicate is how to overcome the obstacles right in front of you.”

January 2021: participating in the 61 kg class of the Japan Championship

COVID-19 was spreading during the Japan Championship, and there must have been many people who faced difficulties. Yamamoto felt she did not want those people to lose hope:

“Think about how para-athletes can overcome the difficulties that have arisen for them. There’s a message in that image. I also thought about what I could aim for in my performance and did my best to work hard at what I could do. I’d be glad if that cheered everyone up.”

photo by Haruo Wanibe

Yamamoto has a kind spirit. She fixes her sight on everyone, not only herself. A large contributing factor to this is that she has congenital spina bifida and has had various different experiences from able-bodied people since her youth.

“I survived because I learned to appreciate my differences.”

April 2021: Symposium on Diversity, SDGs, and Resilience

According to statistics from 2007, 0.048 percent of babies are born with spina bifida. Yamamoto says she thinks she was born with a very rare difference. Because of that disability, wearing her heavy randoseru (a school satchel students traditionally use) her first year of elementary school made her prone to falls, so her mother conferred with the teacher about Yamamoto using a different bag. Yet the teacher responded that Yamamoto should be encouraged to come to school with a randoseru because everyone uses one:

“(Japan is) a society that tends to expect us to be the same as others. When I was job hunting, I also started to think my own differences were weaknesses in the world. But when I went abroad to graduate school in Canada to study parasports and everyone exchanged their ideas, I was told, ‘Your experience is more real than what it says in any article. Your differences are strengths.’ I started to think about how to turn my differences to strengths from then on.”

The 2017 Universal Art Festival in Sumida
photo by X-1

Yamamoto returned to Japan after that experience and began working at the Nippon Foundation Paralympic Support Center in 2015. She started powerlifting the following year and began running into problems working and competing at the same time.

“If you aren’t making use of your differences, try changing your environment.”

April 2021: Symposium on Diversity, SDGs, and Resilience

Yamamoto also had a choice about whether to devote herself to working or competition, but she loved both. She discovered a new field of work as a speaker:

“I’m shy and hadn’t considered speaking in front of people. But I had extremely strong hopes about sharing the attraction of parasports and the thoughts of people with disabilities as a para-athlete, so I took speech training. I soon started to enjoy speaking and think I was good at it. If you feel like you aren’t making use of your differences, another way might be to try changing your environment.”

Now Yamamoto also improved at competitions, setting a Japanese record at the 2019 Japan Championship.

“I feel like I’m finally at the starting line.”

February 2019: Japan Championship

The Japanese record before the competition began was 53 kg, set by Yamamoto in 2018. However, in this competition, Yamamoto added 6 kg all at once and lifted 59 kg. Furthermore, three white lights indicating good precision lit in all three of her lift attempts:

“I decided I would get nine white lights today. Even though I kept having a problem with the weight leaning to one side and not leveling off when I lowered the bar to my chest, eventually I seemed to get it in the right direction.”

photo by Haruo Wanibe

Yamamoto improved further after that and mastered significant techniques.

“You’ll lift it if you believe in yourself!”

July 2019: right after the World Championships in Kazakhstan

Yamamoto stalled at 12th place with 59 kg at the World Championships because she approached the 63 kg lift thinking there was no way she could do it. Just as she thought, she failed. Her coach found out about her thinking and told her, “I believed in you and thought you could lift it. That’s why I wrote and submitted ‘63 kg’”:

“After that, I started thinking about what it means to believe in yourself. As a result, if it’s just about lifting, there was a time I could lift 65 kg. My coach told me, ‘Look, you’ll lift it if you believe in yourself.’”

A change of feelings produced even better results. Yamamoto registered the Japanese record of 63 kg at the Paralympic Games test event Road to Tokyo 2020 in September of the same year.

“I want to be an athlete who can chase her dreams along with everyone else!”

September 2019: READY STEADY TOKYO

Yamamoto was on the rise. Her desire to quickly surpass the 65 kg Minimum Qualification Standard (MQS) to join the Paralympic Games became stronger. She understood well enough that the people around her certainly wished the same and were supporting her.

photo by Yoshio Kato

However, as mentioned at the beginning of this article, trouble awaited Yamamoto after this. She wanted to lift a 70 kg weight to rise to within the top 10 in the rankings, but she could not improve on her record. She did not have any of the record-setting matches she hoped for in 2019. However, in spite of that, she had some words to keep her from hitting rock bottom.

“You should smile.”

June 2021: a conversation before the final competition of the Dubai World Cup

Yamamoto’s mother had continued supporting her since she was born. When her daughter was feeling sad, Yamamoto’s mother told her, “You perform better when you smile.”

The words of a certain manager that “there’s no such thing as a job where everything goes well all the time” also gave her the strength to be positive.

Thus, Yamamoto kept trying. Her dream of joining the Paralympic Games did not come true, but she does not believe this is the end.

“I’m still on the way to fulfilling my dream.”

July 2021: a conversation before the Paralympic Games

The struggle to reach Tokyo 2020 naturally became difficult, and Yamamoto said she was in the lowest spirits of her life. Still, she said this:

“It’s no good burning out now. I could win a gold medal in this competition even at 50 or 60 years old. I’m still on the way to fulfilling my dream. I think it’s important that I continue in the future.”

Yamamoto says it is still too early to decide, but she is sure to come back. When she does, she will undoubtedly share some appealing words on her mental and physical revival.

READY STEADY TOKYO photo by Yoshio Kato

text by TEAM A
key visual by Yoshio Kato

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