Sprinter | Para Athletics

Interview & Text by Senichi ZOSHIGAYA

I Thirst for Gold The Voracious Sprinter
That’s why I chose to become a Para athlete
She placed sixth in the World Championships only six months after starting training in Para athletics. The following year, at the Rio de Janeiro 2016 Paralympic Games, she won a bronze medal in the Women’s 400m T47 event. Today, she has her eyes set on winning a gold medal in Tokyo at the 2020 Paralympics. The name of this sprinter of rare talent is Sae Tsuji. She was born without a right forearm, from the elbow down, due to a disorder called congenital forearm deficiency. A girl who was once focused on overcoming “things that she could not do” became, in time, an athlete who pursued “things that only she could do.” Today in this interview, we trace her past to discover where she finds her power to open the way to the future.
There’s nothing that I can’t do.
In fact, I can do more than other people.
What were your childhood pastimes?
I lived in a place called Nanae until third grade. It’s a town located next to Hakodate, Hokkaido. There was virtually no cars in the streets, and the town was very hilly. So, I used to run against my friends in jump rope races, compete with my friend’s dog, or climb trees. I almost never really played any girl’s games. I was an active girl who was always playing with the boys. I grew up surrounded by nature.
Weren’t your parents worried?
Not at all. Besides, they knew that I wouldn’t listen anyway, even if they tried to stop me.
What about siblings?
There are three of us—an older sister, me and a younger brother. My sister was very shy. She loved Sailor Moon and liked to play house or with dolls—very girly. I think you know the type. My little brother is three years younger than me, but he was a modern-day kid who loved playing computer games.
When did you realize that your arm was different from others?
It was when I was three; when my little brother was born with both arms. Before that, I used to ask my mother, “Is my arm going to grow?” She would skirt the issue by saying, “Well, it might. But then again, it might not.” So, I used to hope that my arm would grow as I grew, too. But, the moment I saw my brother being born, I thought, “What? Babies are born with both arms and legs?”
So, you remember that moment very clearly?
Vividly. I thought, “It doesn’t grow afterward!!” It was a shock to realize that my mother had been lying to me. I had been placing my hopes on her words.
Did you ever feel any inferiority over not having a right forearm?
Not at all. Ever since I was little, I could run faster than anyone else. I always came in first place in foot races, whether it was when I was in elementary school, or junior or senior high school. I was always chosen to complete the anchor leg of a relay, so, I never had a need to feel depressed about not having a right hand. Besides, I was pretty good at doing just about anything as a child. So, what I noticed was that other people couldn’t do the things I could, and not the other way around.
I understand you started playing handball in fifth grade.
My family moved to Hakodate when I was in fourth grade. My homeroom teacher at the new school was the coach of a handball club called Kayage Handball Club. Everyone in my class played handball there. I had no idea what kind of sports it was, but it sounded like fun, and I didn’t have anything to do after school. So, I decided to join. I wanted to play with everyone.
How did the other teammates accept you when you joined the club?
When I joined, Mr. Takada, who was in charge, told everybody, “Sae doesn’t have a right arm. But, I know someone else who doesn’t have a right arm either, and he plays handball at a university. So I know Sae can play handball too.” Whether you have an impairment or not, the basics of handball call for you to be able to throw a pass close to your teammate’s face. Mr. Takada said, “What we can do is throw a pass to where it’s easy for your teammate to catch.” He made sure that everyone practiced this thoroughly.
How did you go from that to getting totally absorbed in the sport?
In junior high, the level of the handball being played immediately surged to a higher level. I couldn’t even catch the ball very well at first. I wasn’t given a team uniform for the national tournament that my team played in when I was in seventh grade. My name wasn’t even called. In other words, I wasn’t on the team roster. I was frustrated about that, more than anything. I mean, I wasn’t even allowed to participate in practice sessions because I couldn’t catch the ball very well.
So, I thought, “Just you wait. I’ll prove you wrong!” and I spent the next year or so, first throwing the ball against a wall to practice catching. Once I developed my catching skills to a satisfactory level, I then practiced shooting. I practiced different skills in stages like that, and by the winter of seventh grade, they started letting me play in games, little by little. From eighth grade, I was a regular team member
The practice sessions must have been pretty rigorous, considering that it was a team that made it to the nationals.
The handball club coach was Ms. Kobayashi. When I handed her my sign-up form for joining the club at the beginning of seventh grade, she was very straightforward with me. She said, “We will not change how we practice in order to accommodate your needs. Do you know what that means? Please take this notification back with you, and don’t come back until you’ve given joining the club good thought.” I felt kind of happy when I heard that.
You felt happy?
Yes, it made me feel happy to think that this teacher would recognize me as a player if I became as good as the others. Before this, people tended to say things to me in a roundabout way. She was the first person to say things so truthfully and very much to the point. I thought I could trust someone like this, so I told her then and there that I would join the club.
Did you feel strongly that you wanted to be seen in the same way as able-bodied people?
I probably did. But I was brought up by my parents as being no different than others. So, to me, it was more about wanting to be “allowed” to do things just like everyone else than about wanting to be “seen” as being the same. After all, I knew in my heart that I had an impairment. And adults were often careful with me, saying things like “Sae, how about you try it this way?”
What position did you play on the handball team?
Since I have no right arm, I am inevitably left handed. Left-handed people usually cover the right side of the court, as seen facing the opponent’s goal. I played either the right back or right wing. The right back tends to create opportunities for offense, while the right winger is the scorer. Right wingers have to be fast, run a lot, and score goals. They step in from a narrow angle to make their shots, so it’s a position that’s better played by a left-handed person.
Did you ever want to quit handball?
You went on to Ibaraki Mitsukaido Daini Senior High School. I understand that the school is known for having very strong handball team that is among the best in Japan.
It was a prefectural high school, so I had to go through the regular entrance exam process. There was no admission by sports-based recommendation. I joined the handball club wondering just how much I’d be able to excel there. I was full of expectations. But, the level of the handball played in high school was so much higher. On top of that, it was a school with a long history in handball. That meant that when you’re in the first year of senior high, you have to do a lot of things other than practice handball—like washing the team’s senior players’ uniforms. However, there weren’t too many left-handed players on the team at the time, so I was allowed to be on the team from my first year. I even got a chance to play in games. It was a prestigious school to play handball for. The year before I joined, it had won all of the major tournaments—the All-Japan Inter High School Championships, the spring and summer tournaments, and even the National Sports Festival. The thing is, when I joined, I thought, there are things that I can contribute here. Of course, there were a lot of things that was still lacking in terms of my skills, but I felt that there were already things about me at that point that I thought was good enough for playing on their team.
Can you be more specific?
The speed with which I can go from feigning a shot to making the actual shot. I also have an extraordinary obsession with ball possession (laughter). So, if there was a loose ball, I’d try to gain possession, even if it meant that I ended up falling in the process. I was the sort of player who did anything to get the ball away from the opponent. Maybe that was the kind of thing that I was recognized for.
I understand that you sustained a lot of injuries.
When I was in ninth grade, I tore a ligament in my leg, and I played in my last tournament of junior high school with that injury. I taped it really tight, and I even managed to score goals. But, I thought, I can’t quit like this, when I haven’t been able to play at my best. I felt that I had to continue playing handball after I went on to high school. Then, in February of 11th grade, I tore my ligament again. And one more time in the summer of my senior year. An anterior cruciate ligament usually takes between six months and a year to heal. I told my doctor that I wanted to play in the All-Japan Inter High School Championships, and he said, with some resignation, “Sure, if you don’t mind it getting torn.” I just took that as a “Yes” and said, “Great, I’ll play!”
So, you chose playing handball over your own leg.
You know, I had already sacrificed a lot of things to come all the way to Ibaraki Prefecture to play handball. I thought that if I couldn’t play in the tournament that would be the crowning achievement of all of that, it would have made coming out there all the way from Hokkaido totally meaningless.
Had you decided to continue playing handball even after you enrolled at Nippon Sport Science University?
Before I left Hakodate to go to high school in Ibaraki, I had asked my parents to agree to my leaving home to go to Ibaraki by promising that I would become a P.E. teacher, and that I would go to a university that would make it possible for me to become one. I gave them that presentation and got their agreement. So, I thought that I would naturally continue playing handball, even after going to university. I had no problem with that either.
You joined the handball club at Nippon Sport Science University, but you later switched to athletics. How was it that you become a Para athlete?
I switched to athletics just as I was becoming a junior as the university. In August of my sophomore year, my handball coach asked me—during our summer training camp—what I wanted to do after I finished playing handball for four years at university. I told my coach, “I want to become a teacher. That’s something that I decided a long time ago.” My coach suddenly said, “How about trying for a medal in a different sport? Would you be interested in taking on that challenge after you finished playing handball for four years?” I knew instantaneously that he was referring to the Paralympics. I was really shocked.
Why was it a shock to you?
I was a regular even in the university handball club. Up until then, I’d been doing just about everything in my life alongside able-bodied people. I couldn’t understand why I had to place myself in the Para athlete category after all these years. When I thought of “Para sport” back then, I thought of people with disabilities. People who were different from others. People who had it hard. So, I thought, “Does that apply to me? There’s nothing that I can’t do. In fact, I can do more than other people!”
In other words, you thought that even if you didn’t have a right forearm, you weren’t in what society referred to as the “handicapped” category.
Yes, that was exactly it. I had an impairment, but I didn’t see myself as being disabled. So, it felt to me like I was being told, “You are a disabled person.” “Go play a sport for people with disabilities.” I was upset when I thought that my coach had been seeing me that way, after all. I felt that was the way things were going to be for me, no matter how hard I tried.
How did your emotions change from feeling that way to making the decision to go into Para athletics?
I didn’t know what I should do. I was feeling very depressed, and I decided to contact Ms. Kobayashi, my old teacher from junior high school. She said, “I think that changing (from handball to athletics) is something that no one else could do, Sae. Why not seize this opportunity to do what you can do right now?” I then also contacted my old teacher from high school, who said to me, “God doesn’t give people a challenge that the person cannot overcome. Besides, I think that this is something that only you could do, Sae.” I trusted these two people completely, and they were the ones who also understood my thoughts well. I thought, “What they say is true,” and I started regaining some of my composure.
So, you received the support of these teachers in this instance as well.
Yes, I did. Something else was that I had a clear vision of wanting to become a P.E. teacher. I thought that children would be more interested in a teacher with experience in different sports and also had experience on the global stage. That was when I thought for the first time, “Okay, maybe I’ll give it a try.”
My hope is to become an athlete who can help narrow the gap between the Olympics and Paralympics.
I do think about things like that a lot.
Were you able to shift your focus to athletics as soon as you made the decision to convert?
Well, the first thing I did was to see what kind of sports I was suited for. I discovered that I had good instantaneous force, so I thought that if I was going to do something, it should be in athletics. It was right about that time, too, that Tokyo won the bid for the 2020 Olympics and Paralympics. So, I decided, that was what I should aim for. But, I also thought that it would be better to get some experience before taking part in the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games. That meant that I needed to take part in the Rio Paralympic Games, which took place before the Tokyo Paralympics. To be able to enter the Rio Paralympics, I had to take part in the World Championships. To be able to enter the World Para Athletics Championships, I had to enter the Japan Para Athletics Championships. When I started planning backwards like that from Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games, deciding on the short-term goals to get there, I realized that It would be too late for me if I started competing in athletics after completing my four years at university. But I really loved playing handball, and I was a regular member of the team. And I had been told that when the time came, I would be made club captain. So I couldn’t make a clean switchover to athletics straightaway. I stayed that way for about six months, playing handball while also competing in athletics. But my body couldn’t really keep up with doing both.
When did you commit yourself fully to athletics?
Atsushi Yamamoto won the gold medal in the long jump at the 2015 IPC Athletics World Championships. I also participated in that world championships, and I was watching the medal award ceremony from up close. When I heard the Japanese national anthem start playing, I thought. “Wow, I want a gold medal too!” I don’t know why, but that was how I felt. In fact, I was so moved that there were tears streaming down my face. It was then and there that I realized that I would never be able to win a gold medal if I continued to stay indecisive and not fully committed to either handball or athletics. The only thing that I could do right now with Rio coming up so close was compete in athletics. I felt a very strong desire to do that. I made the official switch from the handball club to the track and field club in December that year.
Does that mean your long-lasting love of handball lost out to your desire for a gold medal?
Yes, I suppose so. I mean, I thought that it was something that only I could attempt. Even if anyone thought that they wanted to enter an event in the Paralympics, they wouldn’t be able to unless they physically fell under one of the impairment classifications. That’s why I thought it was an excellent opportunity for me.
It seems that you have always used your disability as a force to motivate and inspire yourself.
When I was playing handball, there were people who would look at me and think something like, “She only has one arm. Maybe I shouldn’t knock into her?” I’d see hesitation on their faces. At times like that, I’d ask my teammates to pass the ball to me at all times. I’d play hard offense. I’d surprise the opponent by scoring a lot of goals, and they’d start making me their defensive mark. When that happened, I’d draw the opponent to me, then pass the ball to a teammate instead of shooting.

The long and short of it is that I can’t stand losing. That’s why I can become voracious about things like that. It feels really good to do things that go beyond what others expect. It’s a feeling like, “Ha! Did you see that?”
Handball is a team sport, while track and field is an individual sport. What did you find the hardest after you changed to athletics?
Focusing on myself. When I was playing handball, I was the game captain. So, I often played in accordance with the condition of my teammates. I made a lot of decisions based on how things were going around me. I would look at the expressions on the faces of different teammates, listen to them, and see how they were moving. I adjusted my plays accordingly. In athletics, you have to focus your concentration on yourself only. But, if I heard somebody’s cellphone ringing, for example, I’d tell them that their phone was ringing. I often find myself not concentrating, I see too much of what’s going on around me—that’s the kind of person I am. I’m at least finally starting to understand this.
It seems that you had a very difficult time concentrating on yourself right before the final race in Rio, too.
There was really something mentally wrong with me the night before the final race. My attitude had been that it was a battle in which I either won a medal or died. It was because I was within reach of a medal, that I ended up thinking about what it would be like if I didn’t win one. I mean, all the athletes are there with this once-every-four-years stage as their target. The other athletes were all giving off that kind of aura, and I sensed it very keenly. I kept saying, “I’m going to win a medal!” But actually, I was feeling very anxious over what I was going to do if I didn’t.
Didn’t you feel the same kind of pressure when you were playing handball?
No, none at all. I just enjoyed playing handball.
After Rio, you returned to Japan with a bronze medal in hand.
True. But I hadn’t gotten what I really wanted. When I got the bronze medal, I thought, “I did it! I feel so rewarded!” But there, standing right next to me, was someone else getting the gold medal. I was very happy to win the bronze, but I had such a strong feeling of, “This isn’t what I want!”
Was there anything that helped your shift emotional gears so that you could focus on your next goal?
Things finally started settling down in 2017, and I was able to start training continuously without interruption. It was around then that I realized, “Hey, I can still run!” When you can’t train continuously, you begin losing sight of what your position is at that moment, and you start feeling anxious. Winning the medal in Rio received a lot, and I mean really a lot, of media coverage. My whole world changed, and I couldn’t keep up with what was going on around me. As far as I was concerned, that bronze medal was already something of the past. I had no intention of clinging on to that achievement. I had already had enough attention. I wanted to move onto the next goal. This year, we have the World Championships taking place. That’s where my attention is focused right now as I train.
What’s your goal for the upcoming World Championships?
To win a medal, of course. I hope to mark a time in the 58-second range, but that means that I have to better my current record by nearly one second. I mean, it’s not going to be easy at all (laughter). I can’t imagine being able to achieve that yet, but I think that it would open up a new world for me if I achieve it.
How close do you feel to the world record?
Not close at all. Not yet. Yunidis Castillo of Cuba, who was in the final race in the 100-meter sprint in Rio, is the current world record holder. She won a gold medal in all three sprints that she entered in the 2012 London Paralympic Games—the 100-meter, 200-meter and 400-meter sprint. I hope to get, even if only slightly, closer to her achievements.
There are some Paralympic events in which the Paralympic record is better than the Olympic record. We expect to see that happening with more events in the future. What kind of a future do you envision for Para sports?
I was able to win a medal in Rio, but I don’t want anyone saying that I only won a medal because it was the Paralympics (and not the Olympics). While it is true that the differences between Olympic and Paralympic records are very obvious in athletics events because performance is gauged in terms of time records, no Para athlete has set any kind of limit to his or her own abilities. It would be wonderful if people start looking at a Para athlete and genuinely think that the athlete is awesome. My hope is to become an athlete who can help narrow the gap between the Olympics and Paralympics. I do think about things like that a lot.


Born 1994 in Hokkaido, Sae Tsuji is a sprinter with a congenital limb deficiency of the right forearm. Her Para athletics impairment classification is T47. Ms. Tsuji started playing able-bodied handball when she was in elementary school. Her achievements as a handball player include reaching the quarterfinals in the All-Japan Inter High School Championships, and competing in the National Sports Festival. She switched to Para athletics while a student of Nippon Sport Science University. Ms. Tsuji placed sixth in the 2015 IPC Athletics World Championships. The following year, she won the bronze medal in the 400m T47 at the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games. Ms. Tsuji is currently a graduate student at Nippon Sport Science University.