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[Badminton] Imai Wins Men's Standing Upper Class in 1st Japan Para-Badminton Championships

The 1st Japan Para-Badminton Championships were held February 6-7 at the Western Gymnasium in Kurume City, Fukuoka Prefecture, Japan. This was the first national competition hosted by the Japan Para-Badminton Federation, established in April 2015. The Federation has an open door policy, aiming to nurture and train athletes as well as promote and develop para-badminton. At the championships, athletes with physical, intellectual, hearing and other disabilities competed equally.

The tournament finals were a series of close, exciting games

Fujiwara, age 21, took home a big victory

Para-badminton is largely divided into wheelchair and standing categories, each with different classes according to disability.

The singles finals, held on the first day (February 6), were all great games worthy of determining the Japanese champion in each class. The men's WH1/2 class (wheelchair) finals game was between Osamu Nagashima , ranked ninth in the world, and Seiji Yamami , ranked tenth in the world. Nagashima took the first game, but Yamami countered by winning the second. Yamami then slowly led the third game with a composed combination of hits, forcing Nagashima back and forth across the court, and reached game point first. However, Nagashima, who said, "I wanted to avoid a full match," persevered and turned the tables by forcing an error from Y amami. His expression was one of relief after the slender victory. In the women's wheelchair category, Yuma Yamazaki won in both the singles and doubles finals.

In the men's SL3 (standing lower) finals, 21-year-old Daisuke Fujiwara finally defeated Toshiaki Suenaga, the overwhelmingly top player of this class. Fujiwara analyzed the first victory over his greatest rival saying, "In the past I would be nervous when playing against him, but today I was able to stay calm." In anticipation of the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics where para-badminton will be an official event, he said, "I want to become better so that I can raise the Japanese standard," and this desire led to his victory this day.

One player that attracted particular attention was Taiyo Imai in the men's SU5 (standing upper) class. Imai is a second-year high school student with no right arm. He has played the sport primarily in his school's badminton club. He learned about para-badminton from his parents and registered with the Japan Para-Badminton Federation. This was his first time to compete in a para-badminton competition. He said, "I had not even seen or played with people with the same impairment as myself, so I was nervous." But he seemed confident enough on the court. In the semi-finals he defeated championship favorite Tetsuo Ura (Ura withdrew after the first game), and in the finals defeated Gen Shogaki, to whom he had lost in a full match during the preliminaries. This 17-year-old student sets his goals on the inter-high school championships, and shows little interest in the 2020 Paralympic Games. However, he showed a spark of spirit saying, "Maybe this broadened my options for the future."

Both the men's and women's SU5 class doubles games were the highlight of the second day (February 7). In the women's finals, Ayako Suzuki and Mamiko Toyoda defeated the junior high school team of Sumire Takao and Ayumi Kibayashi in a two-game match. In the men's finals, Gen Shogaki and Kohei Obara defeated Ken Katsuda and Ryugo Kaneda in a full match. The runners-up in both the men's and women's were hearing-impaired players. Although these pairs lost, they played great games and drew loud applause from the crowd.

Successes and Issues in Preparation for the Tokyo Paralympic Games

For athletes aiming higher, the 2020 Tokyo Paralympic Games are undeniably a huge goal. Suzuki, who won both the singles and doubles of the women's finals, had retired after winning singles in the 2010 Asian Para Games in Guangzhou, China, but decided to return to the sport when finding out para-badminton will be an official event at the Tokyo Paralympic Games. She says she is inspired by Toyoda, who came forward while Suzuki was in retirement and is now ranked second in the world in singles. Although the two did not compete during these championships, they intend to both aim for the top while working together.

Shunpei Takeuchi in the SL4 (standing lower) class, a first-year high school student, is another player considering the Tokyo Paralympic Games. Although this was his first time to attend a para-badminton competition, the skills he has been training since fourth grade in elementary school got him to the singles finals. He says with ambition, "I intend to proactively attend international competitions and get better."

Kazumi Hirano, chairman of the Japan Para-Badminton Federation, said, "Our current challenge is promoting and training," regarding the 2020 Games. Although more athletes are playing the sport, para-badminton is still not very well known in society. That said, it is easy to generate interest because the rules are mostly the same as badminton, and it has a unique depth because of the different characteristics of the categories—the standing category has speed, while the wheelchair category requires skill in working the chair across the court as well as tactical judgment. They intend to promote the sport further and continue to develop the field of para-badminton.

Persevering Nagashima

Doubles champions Suzuki (right) and Toyoda

text by Miharu Araki
photo by X-1