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【Swimming】JAPAN Para-Swimming Spring Meet:Young Athletes Looking at 2020 Tokyo

The JAPAN Para-Swimming Spring Meet and qualifying preliminaries for the Japan representative team at the World Para Swimming Championships were held March 5 in the Fuji Swimming Park in Shizuoka Prefecture.

Tobiuo Para Japan, the Japan representative team, won eight medals at the Rio Paralympics. Last year this meet, which was also the final qualifying preliminaries for Rio, took place in a somewhat eerie atmosphere, crowded by the press. Photos of 45-year-old Mayumi Narita's fist pump decorated newspapers the next day. Although that event showcased the strength of Japan's seasoned Paralympians, it also revealed the lack of young stars with promise for the 2020 Tokyo Games. This event was expected to turn that around.

The Spring Meet this year also served as the qualifying preliminaries for Japan representatives of the World Para Swimming Championships to be held in Mexico City in September. Swimmers who achieved the Dispatch Standard Time obtained unofficial qualification. Although not a Paralympic preliminary, the one-shot qualification method must have been chosen to cultivate greater coordinating and psychological fortitude, and ultimately competitiveness, with an eye on the Tokyo Paralympic Games. It was the start of a challenging road for all para swimmers aiming for 2020.

Newcomers Koike and Utsugi put on strong performances

In the women's events, 15-year-old Sakura Koike achieved the "Dispatch Standard Time 2" (for young athletes born in or after 1995) in the 400-meter Freestyle (S7) and will be joining the representative team for the first time. Motivated by her disappointment in not making the Rio Games, she kept training two to three times a week with non-disabled swimmers in order to attain greater stamina. Wanting to "attend many different events," she entered four at this meet. In the 100-meter Freestyle event she broke the Japan record. On her unofficial qualification for the Japan representative team, she said, "I am nervous because this is my first time to be on the team, but I hope to contribute with a strong performance."

Utsugi broke her best time in the breaststroke

Like Koike, Mikuni Utsugi is another member of the 2017 high performance program showing formidable progress. She achieved the Dispatch Standard Time in her specialty, the 100-meter Breaststroke (SB9). She says she focused on shifting weight underwater, which her coach tells her repeatedly, and was surprised at her time herself. She is still 14 years old, with a promising future before her. She says she wants to "be a swimmer that can compete in many events, not just the breaststroke," and promised to train for greater stamina in preparation of the world championships.

Tokairin and Nakajima continue strong

Tokairin after finishing first

In the intellectual disability classification, eight men qualified for the representative team. Dai Tokairin, a regular among top Japanese swimmers in recent years, did not qualify for the Japan team for the Rio Games due to a subpar performance at the preliminaries last year. However, at this meet he qualified with victories in both the 200-meter Individual Medley (SM14) and 200-meter Freestyle (S14). After the race he said, somewhat excitedly, "I was worried whether I would be able to swim my best, but I was able to not give up until the end. It was a good meet."

Keichi Nakajima, the youngest medalist in the Japan Team at the Rio Games, achieved the Dispatch Standard Time in two events. Although he lost the 200-meter Individual Medley to his rival Tokairin, he broke the Japan record in the 100-meter Butterfly (S14) with a time of 59.56. He said, "I am happy, but I will try harder to break the Asian record and world record as soon as possible."

Takuya Tsugawa, bronze medalist in the 100-meter Backstroke (S14), joined the Japan team in the same event. After he finished, he saw the results board and showed his joy with two energetic fist pumps. Moemi Kinoshita joined the Japan women's team. In the intellectual disability class there will be further international class divisions, with three more athletes gaining unofficial qualification for the Japan team later. We hope to see the further growth of these athletes spurred on by friendly rivalry.

Rio medalist Kimura shows a strong presence

For prominent swimmer Keiichi Kimura (S11, visual impairment), this was his first race after a month-and-a-half-long break last autumn. Although he did not live up to his personal best, he achieved the Dispatch Standard Time in the 100-meter Butterfly. He also broke the Japan record in the 100-meter Freestyle, demonstrating a top-athlete's impressive demeanor.

Kimura snatched four medals at the Rio Games, including two silvers, but did not quite reach gold. On whether or not he will aim for the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics, he avoided anything decisive, saying, "I have thought about it, and decided to think a little more about it." That said, in January and February he attended training camp in a semi-high altitude region to prepare for the 2,300-meter high altitude of the world championships. On being a favorite for a consecutive victory at the world championships, he said, "It depends on how well I can swim in a high altitude environment." It seems that his eyes are already on the international level.

Other long-time swimmers were Takayuki Suzuki (SB3/SM4), Mayumi Narita (S5) and Tomotaro Nakamura (SB7). Takuro Yamada, Rio medalist in the 50-meter Freestyle (S9), is looking for a gold at the Tokyo Paralympic Games. He achieved the Dispatch Standard Time for the 200-meter Individual Medley, a new event for him.

Nineteen-year-old Mei Ichinose (SM9) and 18-year-old Airi Ike (S10), both Rio Paralympians, achieved the "Dispatch Standard Time 1" and became "true" members of the Japan team. Japan Team coach Fumiyo Minemura said they are becoming "more self-aware as Paralympians." Twenty-two-year old Chikako Ono (S11), who has been core training since last year, also swam a good race. This meet showcased the promise of young female swimmers.

In this meet, 22 athletes unofficially qualified for the Japan team. After a medical check they will become official members, then go on to compete on the international level. Athletes under the age of 20 will also be attending the Asian Youth Para Games (Dubai) in December. We look forward to watching every moment of the athletes' journey towards 2020, which has already started.

text by Asuka Senaga,photo by X-1
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