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Road Cyclist Keiko Sugiura Used Home Advantage and Won Two Gold Medals

On September 3, Keiko Sugiura (C3) won the road race event in cycling and stepped onto the highest block of the podium. This was her second gold medal after also winning the road time trial event on August 31. In 2018, she participated in eight competitions organized by the Union Cycliste Internationale or International Cycling Union (UCI), including the 2018 UCI Para-cycling Road World Championships, and won seven of them. Dubbed the “Queen of Road Races,” Sugiura’s performance at her first Paralympic Games lived up to everyone’s expectations.

The circuit, Fuji SpeedWay, is a highly technical course with many ups, downs and curves. Taishi Kenjo, the head coach of Japan’s para-cycling national team said, “Sugiura has an advantage (because of her small build).” With cooperation from the venue, he had Sugiura do multiple trial runs on the course.

Initially, Sugiura said she wasn’t fond of this new course, but she won the Road Cycling National Championships held there in June 2019. In high spirits, she said, “I’m starting to feel that I might like this course after all. At Tokyo 2020, I want to come up with a race plan that draws on home advantage.”

At 50 years old, Sugiura is Japan’s oldest athlete to win a Paralympic gold medal

At the time, it seemed as if the gold medal was already within her reach. Then Tokyo 2020 was postponed a year and that expectation was dashed. Since then, Sugiura went through an extremely difficult time, often breaking down in tears. She even considered retiring. During the All Japan Cycling Championship Track Race held in November 2020, we glimpsed her inner struggle, even as she talked about how she had stepped up her core training during the pandemic. She also said she was looking ahead and engaging in training that would allow her to exert an instantaneous burst of power during the final stretch of the road race event.

Sugiura mastered the course by doing multiple trial runs

It was August 31, the day of the road time trial event. Riders had to complete two rounds of the 8km course, competing for the fastest time.

“Based on sheer power, there are many riders I don’t stand a chance against,” Sugiura said. “So I decided to draw on my advantage and give it my all.”

The advantage, as mentioned earlier, was the multiple trial runs that Sugiura had the chance to do on the course. She even got a map and annotated it with all the detailed instructions her coach had given her during the trials. Right before the race, she reviewed her notes again and memorized them all.

She pushed ahead from the start. Her strategy was to rest her legs along downward slopes and technical curves. Then she pedaled with everything she had until she crossed the finishing line. Although she didn’t immediately know what place she was in, her coach said, “You did good,” and Sugiura grew certain that she had won.

“I struggled a lot to get to where I am, and I wouldn’t have been able to do it alone. Now I can repay everyone who supported me by winning a gold medal. That’s what makes me happiest.”

“I want to go and individually see everyone who supported me. I’ve troubled a lot of people in my life, but by winning a gold medal, I hope they can forgive me.”

Shinya Sato, who coaches road cycling, said, “Sugiura has a memory disorder, but she’s very clear-headed. I think she does a lot of memory training.” It seems her hard work, which she doesn’t usually talk about, contributed to her achievement.

Putting a second gold medal around her neck

Sugiura’s highlight was the road race event on September 3. In the 2018 season, she won the road races of all four major competitions. Her classification was later changed from C2 and C3, which is for people with relatively light disabilities, but she remained a strong gold-medal favorite.

Before the race, she talked with her coach and decided on the following strategy:
“Don’t get carried away and pull ahead during the beginning. Hold back. Keep holding back. Then at the very end, sprint forward and win.”

After the road time trial event, Sugiura trained without riding her bicycle and went into the road race event thinking, “I really want to ride!”

“I’m blessed to have such a great coach,” Sugiura said; for the past five years, he made and sent her a training menu every day

The race began slow, with Sugiura going on the offensive a number of times to gradually cut down on the number of riders in the pack and chip away at their stamina. At around 1 hour and 4 minutes, she pulled decisively ahead of the pack and crossed the finishing line with 16 seconds separating her and the runner-up. Having perfectly executed her strategy, Sugiura pumped her left fist into the air.

“After finishing the race, my coach said, ‘You did good’ at which point I knew I had won,” Sugiura said with a smile. “I thought I had spent all my luck winning the time trial…but I wanted to reach a medal no matter what.” Looking back on the race, she looked relieved.

“This medal feels heavier than the one before,” she said.

Following a road race accident in April 2016, Sugiura suffered higher brain dysfunction and functional impairments to the right side of her body. Now, five years later, she is shining at her brightest with two gold medals around her neck.

Sugiura was born in Shizuoka, suffered her accident in Shizuoka, and won her gold medals in Shizuoka; large turning points in her life always happened in Shizuoka, to which she said, “It feels like fate.”

text by TEAM A
photo by Jun Tsukida

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