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【Biathlon】IPC Nordic Skiing World Cup in Sapporo:Overview of the 2016–17 Season

The fourth meet of the 2017 IPC Nordic Ski World Cup in Sapporo, Japan, held at the Nishioka Biathlon Stadium in Sapporo and hosted by the International Paralympic Committee (IPC), closed on March 22. A Cross Country Skiing World Cup took place in 2015 in Asahikawa, Hokkaido, but this was the first Nordic Skiing World Cup (with the addition of the Biathlon) to be held in Japan.

The first half of the event focused on cross country events, and the second half (starting March 21) on biathlon events, which combines skiing and rifle shooting. This was the second biathlon for para athletes to be held in Japan since the Nagano Paralympic Games in 1998. Over 1,200 spectators came during the two days for an up-close view of the powerful skiing and skillful shooting of the athletes.

Six Japanese athletes attended the Middle distance races on the 21st and Sprint distance races on the 22nd. In the men's standing class, Keiichi Sato finished sixth in the Middle and fifth in the Sprint, and Masaru Hoshizawa finished ninth and tenth, respectively. In the men's visual impairment class, Kazuto Takamura (guide skier Yuhei Fujita) finished eighth and seventh, respectively. In the women's standing class, Momoko Dekijima finished fifth and seventh, respectively, and Yurika Abe finished sixth in both. In the women's sitting class, Nonno Nitta finished fourth in both.

Experienced athletes show their full force and steadily prepare for PyeongChang

Experienced and solid Dekijima

The Women's Standing Middle (10km) race on the 21st showcased the steadfastness of Momoko Dekijima. Athletes ski five laps of a 2-kilometer course and perform four shooting rounds in between. Athletes have five shots at each shooting, and a penalty loop (150m) is added with each missed target. Dekijima missed one shot each on her first and third shooting rounds, but had perfect second and fourth rounds. Her perseverance brought her a fifth place rating.

Dekijima reviewed her performance calmly after the race. "The missed shots were regrettable. I wasn't able to sufficiently bring my (skiing) pace up in the second half of the race." She is a seasoned competitor and three-time Paralympian since the Torino Games in 2006. She is a full-time civil servant who trains mainly on the weekends and at all-Japan training camps. She won silver at the World Championships in February and bronze at the World Cup in Pyeongchang.

She analyzes her performance calmly: "When other skiers missed the target, I did not fall apart." She attended three week-long training camps throughout the summer and fall, and said, "I was able to train well. This season I was often able to turn my training into results."

She also showed a quiet competitive spirit towards PyeongChang, which will be her fourth Paralympic Games: "I want to get faster so I can get a little closer to the international level next season."

On the final day, men's standing skier Sato, two-time Paralympian since Vancouver, put on an impressive performance. In the Sprint race, athletes ski three laps of a 2.5-kilometer course and perform two shooting rounds in between. Sato made all five shots on the first shooting round, but missed one on the second. This gave him the penalty loop (150m), but he put in a last spurt and finished fifth.

Today my strategy was to go full force from the beginning. I finished fifth because of the one miss on the second round, but my shooting was stable and I was able to ski as planned, so I think I ended this season on a good note," he said with a satisfied expression.

Sato claims that an athlete's biggest theme is to "become as strong as possible." He is known to attend training camps, alone, in countries strong in skiing sports. He even started the triathlon as part of his skiing training and became so good at it that he attended the Rio Paralympic Games last September, attaining his dream of being a "summer and winter Paralympian."

This caused a delay in his shift to ski training this season, and during the last half he struggled from fatigue buildup. However, there was also a synergetic effect, for example the triathlon gave him greater lower body strength that helped in his skiing. He intends to continue with both winter and summer sports with a focus on maintaining good balance between the two. He will be competing in multiple countries starting April, with an eye on the triathlon at the 2020 Tokyo Games, but will also start ski training earlier next season, parallel to the summer season, in preparation of the PyeongChang Paralympics.

He believes he can get even better, saying, "I am getting closer to a medal. I hope to put my all into the PyeongChang Games, and I hope it leads to a medal."

Young athletes expected to shine next season

This last meet of the World Cup, held in Japan, was also a big meet for young athletes considered the next generation of the Japan team.

Abe, who placed in the Sochi Paralympic Games in 2014, gained strength in her skiing due to weight training she began fully last spring. She started the season well with a gold medal at the World Cup in Finland. Her performance fell a bit, however, in the second half, and at this meet she kept finishing just out of reach of a medal. She intends to take this disappointment and turn it into motivation for the next season.

"Next season I will start foundational training in April, earlier than usual. I hope to keep up my drive throughout the season and get a medal at the PyeongChang Paralympic Games (in March)." She has her eyes solidly on her next goal.

Abe has grown since Sochi to become a top athlete

Takamura, together with guide skier Fujita, takes on the world

Takamura, a blind skier that relies on the voice of his guide, is a teacher at a school for the blind. It was his own teacher that taught him "the spirit of taking on new challenges," and he says, "I want to teach my students from my own experience, not by some armchair philosophy. That is my challenge to ski at the international level." If he qualifies for the Paralympic Games, that will be the greatest lesson for his students.

Takamura and guide skier Fujita have been working together for a year and a half, constantly attending training camps and competitions throughout the season. "We spent more time with each other than with our families."

They trained for the combination event and promised each other to get better in the next season. Nonno Nitta, who is in her second year as a skier, attended the World Cup for the first time this season, attending three World Cup meets. At the last World Cup in Sapporo, she competed in all four races of the two sports. During the third race she collided with another skier and injured her neck and lower back, but kept strong until the end, gaining a standard point for Paralympic qualification. It is her dream to attend the Paralympic Games.

"It hurt, but I am glad I attended. It was my best race so far and I got good results in the biathlon (first perfect rifle shooting round), so it was a happy meet for me." She plans to do muscle building for her arms and also work on building stamina during the summer season with wheelchair marathon, a sport she has been doing since third grade in elementary school. She said, "If I qualify for the PyeongChang Paralympics, I intend to go for a high ranking."

This was the first World Cup meet for 17-year-old Hoshizawa as well. He attended all four meets, but struggled to compete against international athletes who often have bigger physiques than the Japanese, and also because there are many top athletes in the men's standing class.

"The difference in physical strength really showed. I have to improve in a lot of ways. I may have a disadvantage in my build, but I hope to practice so I can compensate with technique. I will improve on my strengths and correct my weaknesses identified this season, and aim for a higher ranking next season."
He stays focused on the path forward, with a calm eye on his current position.

Every experience helps growth. We are looking forward to the growth and results of these athletes after the Paralympics of next season.

17-year-old Hoshizawa faced the severe competition of the world

Nitta gained a standard point for the PyeongChang Paralympic Games

text by Kyoko Hoshino
photo by X-1