Gold Medal with World Record: Naohide Yamaguchi Fulfilled His Promise and Achieved Emotional Growth
Naohide Yamaguchi is the world record holder of the men’s 100m breaststroke event (SB14/intellectual disability) in swimming. On August 29, he made good on his promise and won the gold medal at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games. After finishing the race, he stared at the electrical scoreboard with an almost puzzled look on his face, even as a small smile began tugging at his lips.
“I thought, ‘Oh, I won gold. I made it in the (1-minute)-and-3-second range.’” (Yamaguchi)
His time was 1 minute and 3.77 seconds. He won by shortening the world record—that he had set himself in May—by 0.23 seconds. It was only when Jake Michel (Australia), who came in a close second, congratulated him that a wide smile broke across his face.
100m breaststroke winner Yamaguchi (left) and runner-up Michel (right) congratulate each other on a great race
photo by kyodo
In the final, Yamaguchi went full throttle 5m earlier than usual!
Before the Games, 20-year-old Yamaguchi said, “I want to finish in the 1-minute-and-3-second range at Tokyo 2020. I want to win gold with a new world record.” During the 100m butterfly event on August 25, he came in fourth place and failed to win a medal, but he quickly shifted his attention to the breaststroke event, which was his main focus.
During the preliminary, Yamaguchi pulled ahead from the start and made the turn at 50m with a time of 30.04 seconds. He finished with 1 minute and 4.45 seconds, well ahead of the runner-up in the same heat, Scott Quin (Great Britain), who Yamaguchi considers a rival. The time was a Paralympic record. Looking back on the race, Yamaguchi said, “I feel relieved. I swam with large strokes and made sure not to rush myself.”
Then came the final. Yamaguchi slapped each side of his chest in turn to fire himself up. To his left was Michel and to his right was Quin, who whose overall times were second and third respectively.
The starting signal went off and Yamaguchi led from the get-go. With dynamic strokes that lifted his upper body high above the water, he reached the 50m turn point with a time of 29.22 seconds. That was 0.57 seconds faster than when he set a world record in 2019 at the World Para Swimming Allianz Championships. “(Unlike the preliminary) I was aiming for the record, so I set a quick pace from the start,” said Yamaguchi.
The second half was even more spectacular. At the halfway point, Michel was just 0.1 seconds behind Yamaguchi, who said, “I usually pick up my speed during the final 15m of the race, but this time, I went full throttle for the last 20m.” The distance gradually grew between the two swimmers and Yamaguchi finished about 0.5 seconds ahead of Michel, pulling off a great historic achievement.
Yamaguchi’s powerful swimming during the final
photo by Takashi Okui
Yamaguchi became a gold medalist just four years after he started training seriously
After the race, Yamaguchi courteously said, “I’m very pleased that I was able to beat my own world record and also win the gold medal.” When we look at his career, it’s a marvel to see how quickly he reached the top of the world.
At the age of three, Yamaguchi was diagnosed with autism and an accompanying intellectual disability. His grandparents took him to walk in the pool, where he became familiar with water. Then in 2017, he began swimming seriously when he was in his first year of high school. He improved rapidly and competed internationally for the first time in February 2019. In September of that same year, he catapulted to the top of the world at the World Para Swimming Allianz Championships, where he set a world record of 1 minute and 4.95 seconds and won a ticket to Tokyo 2020.
One of the reasons Yamaguchi was able to achieve such great success so quickly is his privileged physique, standing at 185cm tall. He also has large feet (30cm), which allow him to push firmly against the water to propel himself forward. In addition, he began weight training last fall and put on weight as he worked to create a physical build that would allow him to exert greater power to swim even faster.
His relationship with other swimmers helped him grow
Yamaguchi reflected on how drastically his life changed over the past four years.
“(Since I started swimming) as someone with an intellectual disability, I began interacting with other swimmers in different disability classifications. We shared each of our challenges and that helped me grow. I believe that’s what makes swimming so great.”
Those words indicate that the achievement of winning gold was not just the result of his physical performance. As he met more people, Yamaguchi grew emotionally as well. As a young child, he said he used to wonder why he couldn’t do things the same way other children could. The growth he achieved is no doubt a big step up from when he used to struggle with being different from those around him.
The shining gold medal hanging around Yamaguchi’s neck reminds us that although we may not all progress at the same pace, we can always find a way of life that is unique to us and turn it into confidence.
During the victory ceremony, Yamaguchi received the gold medal from the presenter, Goro Inagaki
photo by Takashi Okui
text by TEAM A
key visual by kyodo