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【Athletics】Highlights of the 28th Japan Para Athletics Championships

The 28th Japan Para Athletics Championships, an International Paralympic Committee-approved event to determine Japan’s top competitors in para athletics, will be held from June 10-11 at the Komazawa Olympic Park athletics field in Tokyo. This will be the first time the championships are held in Tokyo. Around 250 athletes—the highest number to date—will gather to compete for the top spots.

With the Tokyo Paralympics just three years away, the championships will bring together a wide range of Japan’s top para athletes, from Paralympians who competed in Rio last year, to young athletes competing for their first time. And with the athletes looking ahead to the World Para Athletics Championships coming up in London this July, there are many highlights to look out for, including exciting rivalries and potential new records. Here we will focus on the athletes who have made rapid progress—improving their results and boosting their world rankings—in the run up to the championships.

Long jump: A category packed with talented athletes

The long jump has become one of Japan’s strongest events, with a number of athletes representing Japan in the category at the World Championships. Among them, Hajimu Ashida (T47), an athlete with a disability affecting his right arm, is particularly remarkable. At a contest in Australia in March this year, Ashida suddenly increased his own personal record by as much as 31 centimeters, establishing a new Japanese record of 7.15 meters, and raising his world ranking to third place. Prior to that, Ashida had made his Paralympic debut in Rio, securing a bronze medal for Japan as the first runner in the 4 x 100 relay (T42-27), but finishing in twelfth place in his specialist category, the long jump. Returning to Japan disappointed, he rethought his performance from the fundamentals. In particular, he decided to switch his running form from moving about two axes, to focusing his balance around one axis in the center of his body, allowing him to boost his forward momentum, and in turn increase the speed of his run-up. In fact, since the start of the year he has updated his personal best in the 100 meters for the first time in four years, decreasing his time to 11:58 seconds, a boost that also contributes to improving his jump. His challenge is to improve the technique and fine tune the accuracy of his jumping motion so that he can ensure that all of his high running speed is converted into power in his jump. With the World Championship podium now in his sights, the Japanese Championships will serve as a good opportunity for him to test whether he can drum up the confidence he needs to make it.

Kaede Maegawa, whose experience at Rio prompted her
to seek advice from a true expert

There are also a number of promising female jumpers, but it is Kaede Maegawa (T42)—an athlete who competes with an above-the-knee prosthesis on her right side—who is really picking up momentum. Like Ashida, she is motivated by disappointment in the Rio Paralympics. At Rio, Maegawa succeeded in setting a new personal best of 3.68 meters, but finished in fourth place. Her urge to change her approach led to a meeting “written in the stars”—since this spring, she has been receiving instruction from former Olympic long jumper Kumiko Imura (Maiden name: Ikeda). Not long after they met, it was just a simple tip, to see the final step before the jump in her mind’s eye, and “make it just a little earlier,” that helped Maegawa to ensure that all of the momentum of her run translated into momentum in her jump, and at the Oita Para Athletics 2017 in early May, she set a new Japanese record with a big jump of 3.97 meters. Her goal for the World Championships was four meters, but she has now increased that to around 4.30 meters.

And in the intellectual disability class (T20), Mitsuo Yamaguchi has just updated the Japanese record—which he had previously set himself—to 6.77 meters at the 2017 International Federation for Intellectual Disability Sport (INAS) Athletics Championships held in Bangkok, Thailand in mid-May. Riding on that momentum, he is likely to show us a dynamic jump.

Japan’s young para-sprinters look set for success in three years’ time

Sasaki (center) and Sato (right) are making striking progress

The sprint categories have seen particularly conspicuous improvements among young athletes aiming for their Paralympic debut in Tokyo in three years’ time. One of them is visually-impaired athlete Mana Sasaki (T13/weak vision), who set new Japanese records in the 200 meters (26:71 seconds) and the 400 meters (1:00.41 minutes) one after the other at the Oita Para Athletics. A member of the Toho Bank athletics team since 2016, Sasaki practices with able-bodied athletes and has boosted the strength in her thighs and gluteal muscles through muscle-building during the winter. Her main event is the 400 meters. She tells us that her first goal is to achieve a time under one minute, after which she will “aim for 58 seconds” during this season. She will make the championships at Komazawa a foothold for her first appearance at the World Championships.

Tomomi Sato—who is also in the T13 class alongside Sasaki, as well as also being a senior member of the Toho Bank athletics team—established a new Japanese record in the 100 meters (12:95 seconds) at a contest in China in mid-May. For a while, Sato struggled to demonstrate what she had achieved during practice in the actual races, but this new record marked her achievement in breaking the “13-second barrier” that she felt she had to overcome in order to compete on an international level. She and Sasaki look set to spur each other on and quickly close the gap that lies between them and the world’s top athletes.

In the wheelchair class (T54) of the 100 meters, there is significant anticipation for the performances of Tomoki Ikoma and Yuki Nishi, who have both secured their first place at the World Championships. Known for their start dash, they are improving their strength through steady muscle training. They are both on good form, achieving progress such as each setting new personal bests during the recent tour to Switzerland. Ikoma has a slightly faster time, but they are both seeking to boost their times through friendly competition.

Middle-distance running: A strong line up of athletes makes for exciting events

Japan has many athletes in the wheelchair class (T54), but it is Sho Watanabe who currently has the greatest momentum and is developing his overall skill. He demonstrated his stamina and incisive final spurt with his victory at the Tokyo Marathon in February, and, during the overseas tour in spring, he set new bests in both the 400 meters and the 800 meters. At a contest in Switzerland in late May, he set a new Japanese record in the 5000 meters (9:50.55 minutes). He says that it was missing out on a chance to compete at the Rio Paralympics that prompted him to take a fresh look at his performance and work on overcoming his difficulties coping with high-speed races, which in turn really allowed him to make effective improvements. At the Japanese Championships, he intends to show us world-standard racing skill in his events, including in the 1500 meters, in which he holds third place internationally.

The athletes that may put a stop to Watanabe’s runaway lead are Masayuki Higuchi, who successfully placed in two events at the Rio Paralympics and is currently ranked first in the 1500 meters, and Tomoki Suzuki, a young athlete who has just updated his best in the 400 meters and 800 meters. They look set to provide some exciting performances, through fast and powerful races in which tactics are the key.

Tomoki Sato (T52), who won silver medals in two categories at the Rio Paralympics, is also continuing to develop his potential. At a contest in the US in mid-May, where he competed against his US rival athletes, he set a new Japanese record in the 400 meters (56:35 seconds) and the 1500 meters (3:40.48 minutes). We can expect to see an even more competitive international-level performance from him at the championships in Komazawa.

In the 1500 meters event for the visual impairment class (T12/weak vision) the crowd will also be looking out for Rio marathon silver medalist Misato Michishita and her rhythmical running style. Aiming for a gold medal at the Tokyo Paralympics in three years’ time, she has set increasing her speed as her goal for this season. In mid-May, she achieved a time of 19:10 minutes in the 5000 meters, the first new Japanese record for the 5000 meters in 14 years. At the championships, she is aiming to improve on the Japanese record for the 1500 meters, which she set herself 11 years ago.

Tokyo Marathon winner Sho Watanabe is making his mark

Tomoki Sato’s performance in Rio is fresh in people’s minds

text by Kyoko Hoshino
photo by X-1
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