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The First-Ever Badminton Gold Medalist: What 19-Year-Old Daiki Kajiwara is Aiming for Next

Badminton made its Paralympic Games debut at Tokyo 2020. Daiki Kajiwara, who won the men’s singles in wheelchair badminton (WH2), was flanked on the podium by two players he says he deeply respects. He raised both hands with a bashful smile on his face.

A baseball-loving boy was awed by the masterful wheelchair maneuvering of para-badminton

Daiki Kajiwara (center) won the gold medal in the men’s singles (WH2) ©Getty Images Sport

On the right is world No. 2 Ho Yuen Chan (Hong Kong), who Kajiwara defeated during the preliminary round matches. On the left is world No. 1 Jungjun Kim (South Korea), who is called the “King” and against whom Kajiwara competed for the gold medal.

When Japan’s national anthem, Kimigayo, started to play, Kajiwara said he was flooded with emotions. “I got goosebumps. I’d always wanted to see the Japanese flag rise to the highest position in the center, so this was something very special to me.”

Daiki Kajiwara, 19 years old, achieved an amazing feat on the grand stage of the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games and showed the world that he’s a force to be reckoned with.

Kajiwara entered the Paralympic Games for the first time as the rising star of Japan’s para badminton world, winning a gold medal in singles and a bronze medal in doubles

During junior high school, Kajiwara was anticipated to become a potential ace player on the school’s Japanese-style (rubber-ball) baseball team. They were hoping to win the national title. However, in 2015, when Kajiwara was in his second year of junior high, he was riding his bicycle to practice when he was hit by a truck. When he woke up from a coma, he no longer had his right leg from the thigh down. He despaired, knowing he could no longer play baseball.

In his third year of junior high, he participated in the quarter-finals of the national tournament as a scorer, and the experience allowed him to come to terms with his feelings for baseball. Then in high school, he discovered para badminton. He was awed by how masterfully the players maneuvered their wheelchairs. He devoted himself to the sport and endured the rigorous training by drawing on the mental fortitude he had built while playing baseball. In 2018, he was selected as a member of the national team, and the next year, he teamed up with Hiroshi Murayama, 28 years his senior, to compete in doubles matches around the world.

Kajiwara (left) and Hiroshi Murayama (right) competing in the bronze medal match in the men’s doubles (WH)

Continuously learning from tops players in Japan and abroad

Murayama said, “At first, I was a little worried about Daiki’s lack of experience, since I was seriously aiming for the Paralympic Games too.” However, it didn’t take him long to realize he had nothing to worry about.

The more matches Kajiwara played, the more skilled he became. Back when he first began to play as a pair with Murayama, he had to rely on the experienced veteran to cover a larger part of the court. But those roles were soon reversed. From early on, Murayama recognized the challenger’s spirit in Kajiwara. “As soon as we start playing a match, his eyes take on a different glint.”

In the bronze medal match, they won 2-0 against a pair from Thailand

Kajiwara, still in his teens, received a lot of affectionate attention from international players too. “In particular, Ho Yuen and Jungjun have always been really kind and gave me a lot of advice,” he said, conveying his gratitude through the media. He said he watched their videos over and over to find out what made them so strong.

Overcoming the previously impenetrable wall of the “King”

Kajiwara quickly grew into a top player himself. He won third place at the HULIC DAIHATSU Japan Para-Badminton International held in November 2019, which paved the path for him to participate in Tokyo 2020. When the Games were postponed a year, he moved from Fukuoka to Tokyo and intensified his training. In half a year, he built his muscles and went from bench-pressing 30kg to 70kg. He also worked to improve his stamina so that he would be able to endure long matches. His matches against Chan in the preliminary round and Kyung Hoon Kim (South Korea) in the semi-final were both long, lasting 68 minutes and 47 minutes respectively. Nevertheless, Kajiwara won both with his improved physical fitness. Chan made the following comments:

“When I played against Daiki at Tokyo 2020, I was surprised by how much he had improved his physical fitness. He now has the stamina to keep running for 60 minutes. That’s not easy. I think he’s the same level as me and Jungjun now.”

In the final match against Kim, Kajiwara drew on his improved stamina and covered his court expertly. In the first game, he lost seven points in a row from a score of 15-10, which was followed by lengthy rallies. Kajiwara finally hit an effective clear shot and took the lead again. He was in full control of the match’s flow. In the second game, he relentlessly pushed Kim to the back of the court, and when the return shots grew weaker, he went up to the net and smashed them down, time and again. When the match was over, the score was 21-18 and 21-19. It was a straight-set win for Kajiwara.

Kajiwara during the men’s singles final (WH2) ©Getty Images Sport

“I think this was the seventh time I played against Jungjun, and the first time I won. Since I had nothing to lose, I decided to have fun. It was a great opportunity, so I wanted to give it everything I had.”

©Getty Images Sport

After making those remarks post-match, he received the Japanese flag and spread it as he faced the cameras, looking a little embarrassed.

©Getty Images Sport

A player who will lead the para badminton world

As the first Paralympic gold medalist in badminton, Kajiwara will now become a title defender. While he understands that he needs to continue being strong, he is also starting to realize that he’s shouldering the world of para badminton. In Japan, the population of para badminton players is still small.

“I want to be like Shingo Kunieda (in wheelchair tennis) and become the face of this sport. I need to keep working hard so that I can get more people interested in para badminton.”

After the men’s singles final, Kajiwara also won the bronze medal match with Murayama in the men’s doubles, earning them the bronze medal. Looking three years ahead, Kajiwara said:

Kajiwara and Murayama on the podium with their bronze medals in the men’s doubles (WH)

“In Paris, I want to win a second consecutive gold medal in the singles and a gold in doubles too, to become a double gold medalist.”

Kajiwara knows that the more he succeeds, the more junior players may want to get into para badminton, which will liven up the sport even more. It seems the radiant glow of the gold medal lit up a new dream in Kajiwara’s heart.

edited by TEAM A
text by Yoshimi Suzuki
photo by Jun Tsukida

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