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Dynamic Paris-Generation Wheelchair Rugby Key Player Katsuya Hashimoto Rises from Frustration

The 2021 Japan Para Wheelchair Rugby Championships were held on the 20th and 21st at Chiba Port Arena. The Japanese national team, bronze medalists at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games, had a fresh start in order to challenge themselves once again for the sorely coveted gold medal at the Paris 2024 Paralympic Games. One task to achieve their goal is to build up the player lineup, so Japanese national team Head Coach (HC) Kevin Orr is focusing on training young athletes.

For this competition, prospective national team athletes formed three teams to face each other. World-leading high-pointers Yukinobu Ike (3.0) and Daisuke Ikezaki (3.0) were not on the roster. For two days, Katsuya Hashimoto (3.5), whose seniors entrusted him with the next generation after the games in Tokyo 2020 by saying, “Next it’s your turn,” whipped around the court faster than anyone.

The theme for the Japanese national team was “raising the standard.” Nineteen-year-old Hashimoto was the face of this competition.

Striving to go from “golden child” to athlete surpassing his elders

Hashimoto had a generally frustrating experience in his participation at Tokyo 2020, spending a long time on the bench as the team’s youngest player. He is the fourth high-pointer on the Japanese national team. Compared with captain Ike, who played 142 minutes in five games; Ikezaki, who played 107 minutes; and Shinichi Shimakawa (3.0), who played 60 minutes, Hashimoto’s time on the court totaled 10 minutes and 11 seconds. He did not have the chance to join the game against Australia for the bronze medal, either.

Yet holding the bronze to his chest in that special setting made him think positively that he would like to turn the frustration into a source of encouragement:

Hashimoto demonstrated his leadership on the court at the Japan Para Championships.

“Japan has three of the world’s high-pointers, but I’m still inexperienced. Watching from the bench, I felt the significance of the Paralympic setting and the importance of each game, and each play also has to be followed through to the end, without losing concentration. All battles are ones that can’t be lost, so there’s a lot of pressure, and preparedness is crucial. I’d like to do my best to catch up to the other three and overtake them even just a little sooner.”

Hashimoto’s allotted 3.0 points were amended to 3.5 at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games, changing his class. This affects the combination of the four players on the court, so Hashimoto was no doubt truly shocked.

“Hashimoto is distinctive for his speed, passing ability, and dynamic playing.” (HC Orr)

However, Hashimoto’s spirit does not waver. His objective is simply to be the best player in the world. He has much to do, such as study the power of Australian Ryley Batt (3.5), who succeeded at Tokyo 2020, and the chair skills of Canadian Zak Madell (3.5).

“My role won’t change even in the 3.5-point class, but I’m sure to help the team if I play even better than a 3.5-pointer,” said Hashimoto. He modified his personal training program with a renewed attitude. Hashimoto explained that his routine previously focused on running, but he is now concentrating on fine points of wheelchair handling.

Hashimoto was the only player on the Japanese team for the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games to obtain his spot while working full time.

The self-awareness of a budding number-one player

And so, this time’s competition approached. Hashimoto joined national-team-candidate Team B and contributed to his team’s victory in the two qualifying matches as the top player. Not only did he thrill spectators by breaking through the guard net with speed making use of his core strength, he also showed growth in greater stamina, pass speed, and length of range than before.

In the game against Shimakawa’s national-team-candidate Team C, especially, Hashimoto picked up speed and spun around the court in complete control. He formed a line with good offensive and defensive balance, joining the Japanese national team’s Tomoaki Imai (1.0) and Seiya Norimatsu (1.5), and also functioned as a mutual point-scoring line with Kazuhiro Murata, in the same 3.5 class. Hashimoto’s team won by a slim 52-to-51 margin, and he finished the qualifying round with a smile.

Hashimoto beamed while answering interview questions from the onsite announcer’s seat.

But in the final against the same national-team-candidate Team C, Hashimoto struggled with the collaborative defense from players whose impairments were not as mild as his. “We couldn’t communicate as well within the team compared with yesterday. Age doesn’t matter on the court. I have to be able to give more directions (even to older players),” Hashimoto reflected.

Although Hashimoto succeeded in scoring 21 points in the final, his team was defeated by a wide margin of 38 to 48, losing the championship.

HC Orr acknowledged that “Hashimoto reliably fulfilled the number-one role on the team even without the support of experienced players Ikezaki and Ike. This is what the team we should aim for in the future looks like. I want high-pointers, including Hashimoto, to try to reach a higher level, and I felt I got that effect.” But Hashimoto, who hates to lose, had a harsh expression on his face, in contrast to his smile from the qualifying match.

Hashimoto’s teammates must have understood that aspect of a 19-year-old disliking defeat. The winning national-team-candidate Team C’s Shimakawa lit a fire under Hashimoto in an interview after the game, chiding, “Hurry up and overtake (46-year-old me).”

“I want my playing to motivate young athletes like Hashimoto,” said Shimakawa (pictured right).

The curtain will soon close on 2021, a year when Hashimoto devoted himself to competition while holding a job as a new worker in his hometown of Fukushima, but preparation for next year’s World Championship (Denmark) will begin right away:

“My goal for next year is to be selected for the national team for the World Championship and to win Japan’s second consecutive gold medal. I have many points to refine in order to do that, so I want to build up my training locally.”

Hashimoto’s frustration will be dispelled on the world stage. The beginning of the journey to the Paris 2024 Paralympic Games was disappointing, but the contender for leading player of the next generation Katsuya Hashimoto will only look ahead and keep growing.

text by Asuka Senaga
photo by X-1
*The points in parentheses after players’ names are allotted depending on the type and level of impairment.

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