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【Cross Country Skiing】2017 IPC Nordic Ski World Cup Fourth Meet in Sapporo

The fourth meet of the 2017 IPC Nordic Ski World Cup in Sapporo, Japan, hosted by the International Paralympic Committee (IPC), opened on March 18 at the Nishioka Biathlon Stadium in Sapporo, with around 80 athletes from 15 countries participating. Two events each in cross country skiing and biathlon will take place until the closing day on March 22. In 2015 the Cross Country Skiing World Cup was held in Asahikawa, Hokkaido, as the first world cup to take place in Asia. This year the event was moved to Sapporo and changed to the "Nordic" Ski World Cup with the addition of the biathlon events. It is the first Nordic Skiing World Cup to be held in Japan. For both sports, this world cup is the last meet for this season. It is an important event that determines the world cup champions of the season as well as each country's qualification slots for the PyeongChang Games next year.

The meet started with good weather for the cross country events. The powerful athletes put on fierce competitions, showcasing the training they put in towards this important meet and attracting over 1,100 spectators over the two days. The ten-member Japan team put on a great effort boosted by cheers, but struggled to keep up with their international competitors.

Abe competed in both cross country and biathlon events

Yurika Abe, a women's standing skier who started this season by winning gold on the first day of the World Cup held in Finland last December, this time finished sixth on both days. However, the Short (2.5km) Classic race, which was her "biggest goal," was a very close race with the top seven all finishing within one minute. She said, "Although my ranking was not good, I am more satisfied with the content of this race than any other recent race. I hope to gain perseverance in the latter half of races."

The two locals of Sapporo endured some mixed feelings about their results. Nonno Nitta, a 19-year-old student at a professional training school, showed a smile and said, "I was very happy to be able to compete in my local city of Sapporo. The support pushed me forward." On the first day she placed fourth in the Women's Sitting Middle Free (5km) race, which was her best rating at a world cup so far, and on the second day she took fifth place. This is her second year since switching from wheelchair athletics to skiing.

On the other hand, 17-year-old high school student Masaru Hoshizawa placed eleventh on the first day, despite his pre-event enthusiasm to "put 100% into it." He said, "My body just wouldn't move. Maybe I tried too hard because it was held locally." On the second day, his words showed a touch of disappointment: "Because it was a classic event, which I am not great at, I don't mind the ranking. But I was not at my best."

Nitta snatches a medal in the Standing Short Classic race

Yoshihiro Nitta, gold medalist and five-time consecutive Paralympian, was the core athlete for the Japan team. He finished second in the Men's Standing Short Classic (5km) race held on the second day, and gained the first medal for Japan at this meet.

The sunny weather and high temperatures caused moment-by-moment changes in the snow, but he kept on with a seasoned athlete's composure and judgment. After the race he seemed relieved, saying, "My goal was to, at the very least, get a medal. I was able to ski well on the critical hill, and my speed-control and course strategy also went well."。

This was a short race of five kilometers. Before the race, he showed his determination with the words, "Every second counts. I intend to start assertively in the first half." However, just after the start he fell when he tried to take the shortest route on the inner side of the course and hit his ski on a cone. He says he panicked for a second, then immediately pulled himself together and pushed forward.

Around the 800-meter check point his coach told him how far behind he was from other contestants, and he decided the fall had not done critical harm. He was able to stay strong until the very end, and although he was not able to catch up to first-place winner Benjamin Daviet (France), he snatched second with a steady pace that increased the distance with following skiers in every round. His composure in dealing with the unexpected resulted in a good final race of the season.

A solid step towards a PyeongChang gold

Nitta shows a smile after the last race of this season

"My motto for this season is resolution."
These were his words before the start of the season. He had attended the Sochi Paralympics as the defending champion and came back without a medal. After that, his one goal has been to "take back the gold at the PyeongChang Paralympics." He started a four-year training plan, and this season was his third year of that plan. He considered this season to be a crucial one, as the last chance to improve before the real games.

However, last December, at the beginning of the season, he injured his left heel. He narrowed down his goal to "getting results by the end of the season in March," and continued to make adjustments accordingly. In the end, he snatched medals at the World Championships (Germany) in February and the third meet of the World Cup in PyeongChang in March, leading up to the silver gained at this meet. His ability to coordinate and get results will surely lead to greater confidence.。

That said, he stays focused despite the consecutive medals, saying, "I am not always at the top." He was not satisfied with his gold medal in the Middle Classic (10km) race at the third World Cup meet, rating his performance at "about 80%." He cites the fact that his pace dropped about 10 seconds in each round, and that he won by only 23 seconds. Every competition is merely a step towards the PyeongChang Paralympic Games next season.

His goal for PyeongChang is to "get gold in the first Sprint Classic event, and get another medal at the last Middle Classic event."

"If I keep up with the good points while identifying and strengthening the weaknesses from this season, I think I can get a medal at PyeongChang, just like I did at this event. I got results. I will stay focused to avoid any regrets about doing things differently, and prepare for the moment of standing on the Paralympic podium."

This season ended, but Nitta's journey has not.

text by Kyoko Hoshino
photo by X-1
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