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Hidetaka Sugimura Wins Japan’s First Gold Medal in Boccia: He and His Coach’s Journey to the Podium

It was the finals match for the boccia Individual (BC2) event at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games. Hidetaka Sugimura made a rising shot—a technique he’d been working on his training—in the very first end, causing his rival, Watcharaphon Vongsa (Thailand), Rio 2016 Paralympic Games gold medalist, to furrow his brows. Sugimura’s game remained steady for the rest of the match and he ultimately bested his rival 5-0, winning a gold medal in his home country Paralympic Games. Sugimura had honed his trademark, highly accurate shots alongside his coach, who, like him, lives in Shizuoka Prefecture.

The Perpetually Calm Team Captain

Sugimura, who serves as the captain of Japan national boccia team Fireball Japan, had won all three of his matches in the first round of the Individual event. The semi-finals saw him win a comeback victory over Maciel Santos (Brazil), London 2012 Paralympic Games gold medalist, and make his way into the finals. And under the watchful eyes of his teammates, staff, and his coach Yumiko Naito, who sat in the assistant’s seat, he had won Japan’s very first gold medal in the boccia event.

Sugimura was seen shouting with emotion multiple times throughout the match

“I knew I had to focus less on what my opponent was doing, and more just on my own plays. I just had to believe in my training, and put it all out there. And for this match, I was able to stay calm and do that.”

Even after he won the semi-finals and became a lock for a medal, he’d refused to make any comments, thinking that doing so would disrupt his mental state. As collected a person as he is, however, he still had tears in his eyes as he stood in the center of the winners’ podium.

An Accuracy that Captivated His Coach

Sugimura had started playing boccia as a third-year in high school, after an instructor at a facility he had been enrolled in had invited him to play. Later, Sugimura and his friends formed the boccia team Black x White. It wasn’t long before the team’s highly accurate plays had the local Shizuoka boccia world buzzing. Naito, who works as an occupational therapist at a facility in Numazu City, had seen the team playing in a prefectural sports tournament in 2007.

Despite being ranked No. 2 in the world, Sugimura put his all into every match

We’d once asked his coach, Naito, about this period in Sugimura’s career.

“My first impression was that he was one of the ‘cool kids’ on the team. His throws were just so accurate—just on a different level compared to players on other teams. I didn’t know anyone’s names specifically back then, but I became a fan of Black x White right away.”

Naito found herself watching the people at her facility playing boccia and thought to herself, “If only they could play a team like that and win.” Over time, she became more involved in the sport; for instance, incorporating boccia into the sports time at her facility.

It was during the London 2012 Paralympic Games, however, that she began to accompany Sugimura to international tournaments, as a member of his support team.

“I wanted to learn more about boccia, and Sugimura needed someone to support him. Our needs aligned with each other, and so I started going with him to designated training workshops as a volunteer.”

She had initially accompanied him as a member of the caregiving staff. As time went on, however, her desire to become involved in boccia as a sport grew.

Coach Naito congratulating Sugimura, who’d won a gold medal

Working Closely Alongside His Coach

Until then, Sugimura had spent almost no time working on himself physically. So starting 2014, Naito, who was put in charge of physical conditioning, began to accompany Sugimura to training camps and international tournaments as an official staff member. She took what she learned at these training camps back to her local Numazu, where she spent her days extremely busy, going back and forth between Numazu and Izu, where Sugimura’s training center was located.

Though there are individual differences, it’s been said that players with cerebral palsy tend to have difficulty strategizing matches on their own. Saito and Sugimura, however, were able to go to international tournaments together and witness the techniques of the world’s top players. And because they lived in the same Shizuoka Prefecture, they were able to discuss what he had to do to acquire these techniques as he went about his training.

At the time, they’d referenced boccia powerhouse Thailand’s training environment—the same training environment that’d given rise to the Thai player that Sugimura had bested in the finals of this tournament. After repeated discussions, the two decided to increase his training hours, and work on making more powerful shots during matches—the kind of shots he’d been unable to make due to how weak he’d been physically.

Vongsa had felt impossible to beat in the Rio Paralympic Games; after the match, the rivals congratulated each other on a good game

And his hard work paid off, with him coming in 3rd in the BisFed 2018 World Boccia Championships and 2nd in the BisFed 2019 Seoul Boccia Asia-Oceania Regional Championships. He went up to No. 2 in the world ranking, and gained the confidence he needed for the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games.

Sugimura had once said, at his training center in Shizuoka, “At the London Paralympic Games, I saw players going up on the winners’ podium with their coaches. Since then, my greatest goal has been to get up on the winners’ podium with Naito at the Paralympic Games. Of course the goal is to be on the center of that podium.”

The COVID-19 measures in place at this Paralympic Games meant that the medals were brought to the players on a tray, after which the players themselves, or an assistant, would put the medals around their necks. Sugimura, gold medal placed around his neck by coach Naito, beamed with joy.

text by Asuka Senaga
photo by Jun Tsukida

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