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No Medal, But No Regrets: Aiko Okazaki of Archery Reflects on Her Journey Through Tokyo 2020

Aiko Okazaki competed in the archery (W1) event at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games, winning Olympic diplomas in two events, after coming in 5th in the Women’s Individual event and 6th in the Mixed Team event. After the end of Tokyo 2020, she looked back on her journey within the tournament and said, “My goal was to win a medal, and I feel like I should’ve won one.” At the same time, she says, “I don’t have any regrets.” As a para-athlete, Okazaki is someone who loves sports from the bottom of her heart. Here, we look into her journey in Tokyo 2020, and her thoughts on parasports.

Blinkered by Nerves in the Ranking Round

Archery is a sport that—with a few tweaks—can be played regardless of the existence of a disability, or even the type or severity of disability. Okazaki herself had made it to this greatest of world stages, Tokyo 2020, by devoting herself to these tweaks, and putting in as much effort as humanly possible.

“I have some paralysis from the neck down, which means I have a really weak grip, and my core tends to be unstable. So when I first started the sport, I wondered if someone like me could really do something like archery. But over time I found different methods and tools that worked for me, like supporting my body by locking my left shoulder and legs in place with a belt, or fingerless release aids, and I started really being able to hold my own.”

The “tweaks” Okazaki needed to get through this particular tournament were measures to combat the heat. The ranking round of the archery Women’s Individual (W1) event, her Paralympic Games debut, had been held the morning of August 27, on the third day of Tokyo 2020. The sun was beating down on the venue, the Yumenoshima Park Archery Field, and the match became a battle against the heat. Okazaki had told us previously how important it was for her to take measures against the sunlight, heat, and humidity, given that her disability, which comes from a cervical spine injury, has made it difficult for her body to regulate its own temperature. As such, she’d prepared an ice vest, set with gel ice packs, for this tournament.

“Ice vests aren’t super cold. They just make the rise in body temperature more gradual. I mean, it would’ve been nice if it’d cooled me down a bit more, honestly,” said Okazaki.

Even so, however, Okazaki said that she didn’t really feel the heat in the first half of the ranking round.

The ranking round became a battle against the heat

“It started at 9 A.M., which meant it wasn’t all that hot to begin with, but I think more than anything it was just the pressure I was feeling—I was so nervous, I could barely tell how hot it was.”

The ranking round in archery is comprised of 36 shots in the first half, and another 36 in the second half, for a total of 72 shots, with the total number of points after the 72 shots determining the archers’ rankings. Okazaki did not do as well as she’d wanted in the first half, earning 272 points and coming in 10th out of 12 archers. Immediately after the match, she’d told us, “I don’t know why, but I couldn’t stop my hands shaking all the way up to the third end.” When asked about it again later, she said, looking back, “I think honestly that that was just nerves too.”

“I got a muscle contraction in the hand that I use to hold the bow, and my hand curled into a grip, and I couldn’t get it to relax. With archery, even just the slightest difference in your grip can make it hard to shoot the way you want. So while I was shooting I felt sort of resigned—like, it is what it is. The contraction finally went away in the fourth end, when my trainer massaged my hand during arrow collection.”

In the latter half, she found herself earning points the way she’d wanted. At the same time, however, she was beginning to really feel the heat. “The heat really builds up in my body when it’s hot, and there are times when I really can’t just be in that kind of heat anymore, what with the dizziness and the shortness of breath,” said Okazaki. Here too, she said, the final two ends had had her struggling enough that she’d wondered whether she could go through with the rest of her shots. It was only through sheer determination and concentration that she managed to overcome this struggle, coming in third with a total of 304 points. Overall, she came in 9th, with a total of 576 points, allowing her to make her way into the final rounds of the Women’s Individual and Mixed Team events.

The Fun of the Mixed Teams Event

The following day, on the 28th, Okazaki came out to compete in the Mixed Team event with her partner Koji Oyama. From here on out, the matches would be played game-style*, marking a dramatic change in atmosphere in the shooting range and in the matches themselves. This shift, Okazaki said, had made her nervous. And with the start of the match, something would happen to compound these nerves.

*A match format in which a team plays another team in a 1-v-1 format. For the Mixed Team (W1) event, each team makes four shots per end, with two shots per team member. The team with the most number of points at the end of four ends, or 16 shots, wins.

“The UK team was winning by four points [in the second half of the first end]. I panicked a bit, thinking we had to do something about it, which made the muscle contraction in my hand come back.”

The four-point difference had come about partly as a result of Oyama, Okazaki’s Mixed Teams partner, had only scored two points in one of his shots. Oyama, who had apologized reflexively to Okazaki, said after the match that Okazaki had told him, “Don’t worry about it.” In the Mixed Team event, it was impossible to tell which one of them would miss what shot. Between the two of them, they’d cultivated the idea that the responsibility was mutual, that it was their job to back each other up, to make up for the other if needed. Besides, the four-point difference was small enough that they could reasonably make up for it in the three ends they had left. And the fact that they were only four points apart, even with one of them having shot a 2-pointer, made them hopeful. It was this hope then that had driven Okazaki to want to fight to take the game back, to make her tense up a bit.

Looking back, Okazaki said she’d been able to enjoy the Mixed Teams match with Oyama

Despite the muscle contraction in her hand coming back, Okazaki shot a 9-pointer and a 7-pointer in the second end. For Okazaki, whose goal had been to earn around 8 points for each shot, this was a success. The second end found the Japan team with 34 points, and the UK team with 35 points—about on par with each other. In terms of overall points, however, this meant that Japan would have to make up for a five-point difference within two ends.

From here on out, Okazaki said, “I was overwhelmed by the pressure from the UK team, and I just made a bunch of mistakes.” The third end saw her making two 7-pointers, and in the final end, a 7-pointer and a 6-pointer. Oyama, on the other hand, put in a fairly solid performance, shooting a 10-pointer, two 9-pointers, and a 6-pointer. Their opponents, however, performed better. With three 10-pointers and a minimum of 7 points for each shot, they sealed the deal.

Okazaki said, looking back on the match, “When you’re there on that stage, it comes down to who can shoot the way they’ve trained. It really hit me how intimidating the Paralympic Games are.” Still, Oyama said, the pair had made the decision to enjoy the Mixed Teams match. To that point, Okazaki said, “From the second end on, I was able to look around and see what was going on around us, and enjoy the atmosphere a bit.” And indeed, looking at the pair’s bright, cheery demeanor in the post-match interview, it seemed they had accomplished their goal.

Preparing, Cautiously and Thoroughly, for the Individual Event

Okazaki’s final match was for the Women’s Individual event. Having gotten a bit used to the venue by the final round, Okazaki was able to go into the match with a “good level of nerves.” And indeed, she made it through the first round with a total of 128 points. The second round, however, would see her fall to Minyi Chen (China), who had gotten through the ranking round in the No. 1 position, and who ultimately became the gold medalist for the Women’s Individual event. Okazaki later revealed that she had gone into this particular match calm and grounded—if only because she had known it would be a difficult one.

“Of course you tend to tense up when you’re against a strong opponent. But with archery, what you do is the same no matter who you’re up against. It all comes down to how close your shots get to the center. So all you can do is let go of your worries and make those shots. I mean, I personally find I score better in matches than in my training, and I tend to be able to concentrate better when I know I’ll be going against a strong opponent.”

Okazaki put up a good fight against her No. 1-ranked opponent in the quarterfinals of the Women’s Individual event

She had, in fact, earned what for her was a fairly standard score—129 points. Her frustration was evident, considering she could have made her way further into the finals if she’d played a different opponent. As someone who’s always loved sports, she has a competitive edge that drives her to want to do the best she can, get to the highest rank she can, whenever she plays anything—and the mental steel to get herself there. This is evident also in the way she spares no effort in prepping herself for victory.

“I’m a very, very cautious person. I have to think through all the risks that could crop up and how to deal with them, or it’ll make me really nervous. So for the Individual event, for example, I went and watched videos from tournaments that were held in this venue and from the World Archery Para Championships, over and over again, just to get the image of it in my head. I also thought about what I would do if my release aid broke, and brought extras just in case.”

Looking back on Tokyo 2020, Okazaki says, “My goal was to win a medal, and I should’ve won one.”

“Looking at it overall, my performance in this tournament wasn’t bad. So I have no regrets. But with the organizers hosting the tournament under these circumstances, and with so many people cheering us on… I think as an athlete, I had a responsibility to get results.”

Okazaki is also known as a victim of the derailment accident on the JR Fukuchiyama Line in 2005. She has posted on her social media, “It makes me sad that the info out there is about how many days I spent in the hospital, and there’s nothing about my rankings or achievements.”

Having been able to shoot the way she’d wanted to shoot in the end, Okazaki said she had no regrets

When asked about this, she said, “Most parasport articles tend to focus on the athletes’ life history. And of course I understand wanting to convey that. But I’ve had articles written about me for 16 years now, and I think by now there’s been more than enough of that. It’s the parasports that are the focus, so I kind of wish that more of these articles would put the emphasis on the sports themselves. And I don’t mind if they criticize me when I don’t get results. I think some negative press will make the parasport world stronger.”

With the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games, Japanese parasports have entered a new era. What it comes down to now is how far this effect will ripple, and how deeply rooted it will become. Okazaki has been vocal about wanting archery to be more widely recognized, more widely played. We look forward to seeing her success in the future.

text by TEAM A
photo by Kyodo

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