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【Wheelchair Fencing】13 Wheelchair Fencers Gather for the First Japan National Championships

The FY2016 Wheelchair Fencing Japan National Championships was held on August 7th at a Kyoto hotel. A total of 13 men and women competed in individual matches in the foil event, which targets only the torso. The women’s event was won by Anri Sakurai (Kyoto Prefecture) and the men’s by Naoki Yasu (Tokyo).

Hopes for an Increase in the Number of Athletes in Women’s Wheelchair Fencing, Currently Led by Sakurai

Attack and defense in wheelchair fencing take place at extremely close range. It requires that one stay continually focused and on guard. On the day of the championships, the metallic sound of blade striking blade echoed in the hotel-room venue that was filled with a distinctive, tension-packed atmosphere.

Four fencers were entered in the women’s event, with six matches taking place in the round-robin tournament. Entrants other than Anri Sakurai—a JWFA-certified athlete—are still beginners who only recently started fencing. The event ended as Sakurai’s overwhelming victory.

This was the first tournament for Yukie Mori (Hokkaido), who started wheelchair fencing around October last year. She developed an interest in the para-sport when she heard that there was an athlete competing on the world stage despite her small frame. She said that she is currently noticing how her own skills develop according to the amount of practice she puts in. While she was unable to record any wins, her focused attention on other fencer’s matches was striking.

Sakurai feels that under normal circumstances, certified athletes and developing athletes should be clearly separated in competition. However, she showed understanding and said, “Experiencing a tournament like this is a good opportunity for them since they normally don’t have a chance to fence in a competitive environment filled with tension.”

Although there are some differences in the way men and women fence, such as smaller, more delicate movement by women, Sakurai also entered the men’s competition. She said she often practices with men and showed her strong presence by winning into the semifinals in the men’s tournament.

The distance between fencers is decided according to arm length

Women’s match between Sakurai (on right) and Mori

Yasu Steals the Crown, Yet Reflects on a Need for Greater Sword Skills

Nine athletes were entered in the men’s event. Preliminary and championship rounds were held. Naoki Yasu and Shotaro Kano (Tokyo) showed rock-solid strength, advancing into the final match. Neither were able to score points at first, but after Yasu managed to score his first, he continued to score two more for a 3-0 lead. Kano gradually scored points with his aggressive attacks, but Yasu won the match 15-7.

After the match, Yasu reflected, “I tensed up, and my fencing lacked variety in moves, but I’m glad I was able to carry through to the end for a win. I can’t wait to get back to Tokyo so that I can practice some more.”

Sakurai, a woman, came in 4th in the men’s event

Yasu, who won the men’s event

The Shortage of Coaches Specializing in Wheelchair Fencing a Challenge

The first wheelchair fencing national championships was held in Japan in 1998. However, the championships were discontinued after 2003 due to a fall in the number of participants. With Tokyo winning the Olympic bid and the hosting of the Paralympics decided, the sports association made a new start in 2015 as the Japan Wheelchair Fencing Association (JWFA). It has been carrying out demonstrations proactively and providing opportunities for people to experience wheelchair fencing. As a result of steady efforts to build interest in the para-sport, the number of people practicing wheelchair fencing increased from only two to nearly 40 fencers, resulting in the hosting of this tournament for the first time in 13 years.

Toyoaki Hisakawa, who attended as guest to offer words of encouragement to fencers

On the significance of re-starting the national championships, JWFA chairman Shinichi Komatsu said, “Taking part in a tournament increases athlete’s motivation. All the beginners will be at the same starting line. I think that by competing with each other, we’ll start to see people who will aim for the Paralympics.”

Toyoaki Hisakawa, who represented Japan in wheelchair fencing in three consecutive Paralympics beginning with the Sydney Games, was at the venue, watching over his juniors. During his competitive wheelchair fencing days, he had a difficult time in Japan finding people to practice with. He said he felt envious during overseas matches every time he saw others practicing as a team. That is why he says that this increase in the wheelchair fencing population is a wonderful change. He pointed out, however, “The level of each athlete’s impairment is different. There is still a shortage of specialized coaches (who can give guidance based on an understanding of such aspects),” referring to a serious challenge being faced in the world of wheelchair fencing in Japan.

According to the JWFA, there is a plan to invite Fung Ying Ki of Hong Kong, winner of three Paralympic Gold medals, to coach the Japan national team beginning this autumn. He has visited Japan many times in the past to serve as a special coach for Japanese wheelchair fencers, and a bond has already been created between them. With only four more years until the Tokyo Paralympic Games, hopes are high that there will be further advances in the preparation of a favorable environment for wheelchair fencing, both in terms of hardware and human resources.

text&photos by Miharu Araki
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