Photographs by Mika NINAGAWA │ Styling by Tsugumi WATARI │ Make Up by COCO │ Interview & Text by Senichi ZOSHIGAYA | Cooperation by SLY
Just Working Hard for Myself
After the Rio Paralympics, a Realization at 21 Years Old
Two years ago, Mei Ichinose was featured in the media as a medal contender for the Rio Paralympics.
But when she actually got there, and competed in her six swimming events, she wasn’t able to advance to the finals for any of them. She understands, more than anyone, how terribly difficult it is to get on that victory podium.
“I couldn’t swim the way I wanted to. I was so frustrated I almost felt nauseous.” Now, in the halfway point to the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics, Mei has begun rapidly closing the distance between herself and the world. A fourth year student at Kindai University, her days are packed to the brim, and she’s made some new discoveries about herself in her training camp in Australia. Mei, as she is now, isn’t about to lose sight of her own stance on swimming, no matter the frenzy for 2020 that surrounds her. Now, in the spring of 2018, she is working hard, has learned to be more patient—and the foundation of her swimming is something that is becoming more stubborn, more reliable, every day.
The six months leading up to Rio were exhausting and filled with frustration. The gap between people’s expectations and my own ability was never as great as it was for Rio
The Rio Paralympics and the Burden of Representing a Nation
The Gap Between Ability and People’s Expectations
Right now, we’re at about the halfway point between the Rio Paralympics and the upcoming Tokyo Paralympics. What are your thoughts on your current situation?
My biggest goal is to win a medal at the Tokyo Paralympics. But recently I haven’t had much opportunity to see myself objectively, what with not being able to compete in the 2017 world championships in Mexico. My times haven’t really improved either, from what they were at Rio. I really need to work at improving faster or I won’t be ready for Tokyo.
Do you feel that not being able to improve your time is a dilemma of sorts for you?
My training has been good—it’s just I haven’t been able to follow through with results. I do think I’ve gotten better since Rio, but it doesn’t matter if it’s not reflected in my times.
You said something previously that stuck with me, because it seemed such a unique way of understanding your situation—that you wanted to experience the Paralympics at Rio as a sort of “preparation” to win a medal in Tokyo. And in fact when you did compete in Rio two years ago, you weren’t able advance to the finals for any of your individual events. What did the Rio Paralympics mean to you, looking back on it now?
With Rio, the media was reporting on me like I was a part of the Japan national team even before the qualifiers, so when I was finally chosen, I felt more relieved than happy. And then as soon as I was chosen, people started calling me a medal contender! At the time, I was ranked 13th in the world, and honestly speaking, probably wasn’t good enough to even make it into the finals. People close to me, like my coach, knew this, but my acquaintances and peers would come up to me and say things like, “go get that medal!” I felt like I was dragging behind everybody’s expectations of me, like no matter how much I tried, I’d just be following a path that other people had already set up for me. In that sense, the six months leading up to Rio were exhausting and filled with frustration.
Still, no matter the results, it would have been alright if I’d been able to give it my all, and been satisfied with the way I swam, but I wasn’t able to do that either. I was so frustrated with myself, I almost felt nauseous.
Was it the first time you’d experienced that kind of unreasonable expectation from people around you?
There were times where I felt people had unreasonable expectations of me, but the gap between people’s expectations and my own ability was never as great as it was for Rio. I was totally fine with the attention, and with doing interviews, especially because I wanted there to be more recognition for para sports in general. But the gap that this caused between people’s expectations of me and my own ability was honestly really hard to handle.
The focus and concentration that I needed to accomplish my goals in that kind of circumstance is something I’ll need as I prepare for Tokyo as well. In that sense, it was a great learning experience, and I consider myself in some ways to be very lucky.
What are your most pressing issues right now?
Right now I’m just training the basics. An issue I have personally is that there’s a huge difference in my times when I’m swimming at my best versus when I’m not. I really should have times that are more consistently good, but I haven’t been able to manage that. So right now I’m just trying to get better at analyzing and recreating the swimming that I do when I get the best times.
What do you think causes these ups and downs in time?
Skill level. Swimmers with strong base skills don’t ever really see their times get drastically worse. My times tend to depend too much on my mental state and the adjustments I make before a race, instead of the skills I’ve built through practice. So in other words, if I’m in a bad mental state, or if I can’t make the proper adjustments, I do poorly. If me performing at my best is 100, the more of that percentage is taken up by my mental state, the more my performance will be affected by my condition that day. Improving my skill level will help me, in that sense, by giving me more of a steady base.
In elementary school, I tried to join a local swimming school, and got rejected. If they’d let me in at the time, and I’d been able to swim with the able-bodied kids…
From Individual to Team
Discovering Myself Through the Kindai University Swimming Team
You entered the Kindai University swimming team as a first year, and now you’re a fourth year. Tell us what the team is like.
When I was deciding where to go for university, I knew my priority would be finding an environment in the Kansai area that would allow para swimmers to train properly. Kindai has a 50m indoor pool, and their swimming team doesn’t have any kind of rule that excludes para swimmers by principle—having to be within a certain rank in the All-Japan High School Tournament, for example. Our coach is Takashi Yamamoto, a silver medalist in the Athens Olympics, and he allowed me to join the team out of a respect for my para swimming record.
Nowadays, Kindai is very understanding about para sports in general, but it wasn’t necessarily like that when I first entered. But Kindai as a university loves trying new things and doesn’t feel the need to follow rigid rules, and I feel very blessed to be able to train in this environment that’s been so accepting of me and my sport.
I assume you didn’t have very much experience training or working with a group before joining this team?
You’re right. I’m training and working with able-bodied swimmers, so obviously they’re all aiming for the Inter College Swimming Championships. This tournament looks at your total number of points as a team, so it’s very important how much you can contribute towards your team’s effort. I can’t even compete in this tournament. And so towards the beginning it was hard, with everyone around me so deeply involved in something I felt had nothing to do with me.
But gradually I started realizing how fun it is to work as a team, and how good it is to have peers. There are so many things I’ve learned from both my juniors and seniors on the team, and I wouldn’t have known how interesting this all is if I hadn’t joined the team.
Takuro Yamada, a fellow para swimmer, also spoke with us about the training environments for para athletes. This is probably something that’s not limited to swimming, but the reality seems to be that there aren’t many opportunities for swimmers with disabilities to swim and train with able-bodied swimmers. Takuro’s opinion was that this lack of opportunity is a barrier for para athletes, preventing them from developing a healthy sense of competitiveness, or eagerness.
In elementary school, I tried to join a local swimming school, and was rejected. I do think if I’d been able to join the school at the time, and swam with able-bodied children, I would’ve been able to swim at a level much higher than where I am now. Honestly, it was only when I entered university that I started training the same number of hours as Olympic-level athletes, and by then it was really too late. Para swimming is less competitive, yes, but there’s so much competition within our swimming team for regular spots on the team, for example, and I have so many rivals just in the university itself. Everyone is struggling, and competing against each other, but also opening up to each other, and helping each other—it’s so motivating and stimulating to see all this up close. It does make me feel like I need to be better too.
The reality is that you don’t really have anybody to compete with. Was this something that was difficult for you even as a child?
After my second year of middle school, when I set the new national record, I didn’t have anybody to compete with for a long time. That was actually when I started thinking of myself on a global scale, instead of just within Japan. But the lack of rivals in Japan made it difficult for me to stay tense and competitive in an everyday sense, even though I knew in my head that I was competing with the world. My coach always tells me, “Each race is a war. You’ve got to be ready to murder the others in competition.” But [laughs], I don’t really know what that feels like. When I compete in a tournament in Japan, I feel less like I’m “battling” other people, like I’m winning or losing against opponents, and more like I’m “working,” trying to get the best time I can possibly get for each race. So when I went to Rio and I really had to “compete,” I had no idea what sort of mentality I needed to have, and I was just completely overwhelmed. So I’m thinking now I should go overseas more, and find a rival I can compete with.
Do you personally see swimming as a sport you compete in against others?
I think it’s a battle with yourself. Or… that’s what I’d always thought, but during the Olympics, I heard a TV commentator saying something like, “this guy has a really strong latter half, so this is probably a strategy,” and I remember thinking, “oh wow, strategy in swimming?!” But if you think about it, it makes sense. People don’t go to the Olympics to get good times—they go to the Olympics to win medals. It was the first time I understood the difference between swimming to get a good time and swimming to win a race, and it was a bit of a shock.
When did you feel this shock?
I think it was during the Rio Olympics.
That’s very recent.
For the longest time I’d only been focused on getting better times, and it didn’t occur to me to have any sort of strategic mindset, like—I should hold back a bit in the first half, see what’s happening, and go all out in the last 50m to catch up, get ahead, and win. Listening to that commentator, I thought wow, swimming really is so interesting.
In other words, you weren’t aware of the strategic element of sports.
Because I’d never had a strategy, I guess [laughs]. But recently, in Japan, I do feel like I’m competing when I swim with Yuuki Morishita. It’s so fun to swim when she’s over in the next lane. She tends to be pretty aggressive in the first half, so I try things like staying right next to her until I hit the turn, and then going all out in the latter half. But in the individual medley, there’s still a five-second gap between me and the No. 2, so it’s still a bit difficult to have that mindset.
Which is about the same difference as between your current personal best and the world record, isn’t it?
Yes, I’m about five seconds away from a gold-medal time.
I suppose that’s what makes para sports difficult—there are just so many individual differences. And that also adds to the tendency of para athletes to look inward, instead of outward, at others.
This might sound really simple, but I think for para sports to be more competitive, and feel fun in that sense, there just needs to be more of a competitive population. I wasn’t able to enter that swimming school when I was little, but if schools like that had been open to people like me back then, there’d probably be a lot more para athletes now. I think there have to be more environments for people with disabilities to start playing sports without having to work so hard for it.
Three-Month Training Camp in Australia
Learning that Time is Not Everything
You were training in Australia for three months, from December of last year to this February. Why did you decide to go to Australia?
Australia has a lot of competitive para swimmers, and a lot of swimmers in the same class as me. For three months I lived with Ellie Cole, an Australian para swimmer, training and competing in three Australian tournaments. At Kindai, I do normally train with everybody else, but I’m all on my own in terms of para swimming. In Australia I knew there’d be something like ten para swimmers I’d be able to train with, and that’s why I decided to go there.
Did you notice any changes in the three months you were there?
I started caring even less about the little details [laughs]. It also made me feel, in a way, more grounded. Until then, I’d enter a race and just be in panic mode about needing to get a better time. I felt like the swimmers there were more in touch with themselves and their own capabilities. Of course, they had times they’d set as goals, but more importantly, they were constantly evaluating themselves and figuring out what they could to make themselves better. It taught me to think more logically about my own performance, and not just rely on feel. It really seemed like it was something that was engrained in the swimmers there, even the younger ones.
Swimming in Japan is really time-heavy. Time is important in Australia too, but they put the most focus on the quality of your swimming. They taught me to emphasize the actual work, instead of the mental elements. Those three months, I think, really taught me how important it is to look at the actual content of my swimming, instead of just working towards set numbers and visible results. In English, there isn’t even a word equivalent to the Japanese term, “ganbaru” (trying as hard as you can). They say “work hard,” but that’s more about putting in the work than it is about trying.
It wouldn’t be right for people to think I speak on the behalf of all people with disabilities. I just wish both sides—the people doing the communicating, and the people being communicated to—could see people more as individuals.
It has to be difficult for you to figure out what’s right and what’s not, training methods included, when your para swimming experience is limited to Japan. There must have been a lot of things you realized only after you went overseas, and spent a lot of time with the swimmers there.
You’re right—it’s so difficult when you only train in Japan. You’re especially right about not knowing what’s right and what’s not. I’m always thinking, “should I do this, or that,” but there’s no one for me to ask, and even if I do ask someone, they can’t always give me a proper answer. Right now it’s a bit better because I have a personal coach and the team coach, and I can discuss any issues I have with them. But even then, I’m generally the first para swimmer they’ve ever coached, and they obviously don’t have experience swimming minus one hand [laughs], so it’s something we have to figure out together.
Are you planning on going to Australia on a regular basis in the future?
Yes, I think I will.
Individual > Category
Honoring the Teachings of Mom and Dad
What do you think has had the most impact on your personality and way of thinking?
My mom and dad. My dad is British, and my mom is Japanese, and so, this may sound strange, but I grew up in a household that wasn’t very “Japanese,” and I think it allowed me to have more of a multifaceted understanding of the world. My dad hasn’t lived with us since I was nine years old, but every time I meet up with him, I realize the things I think are normal or I’m used to in Japan aren’t actually the norm. My mom is also just a very powerful, action-oriented person. I agree so much with everything my mom says that I couldn’t find a single reason to rebel when I was a teenager [laughs]. I think being able to receive advice from people like that all my life, has really defined who I am now.
What kind of advice did they give you?
For example, I grew up being told that it’s good to be different from other people. I went to a school in the U.K. for a year in elementary school, and when I came back to Japan I was suddenly so much more assertive than I’d been before [laughs]. This obviously made it really difficult for me to fit in at school in Japan, and so I hated school. And in response my mom said, “You don’t have to change the way you are. If you can’t fit in, we’ll change schools.”
I don’t think there are very many parents that can say something like that. Normally they’d tell you to try to be more friendly, or not to cause disruptions. My mom was just really good about honoring and respecting what made me different from other people. She told me it was a shock though, even for her, when she found out I was missing a forearm. But then she went home and told my dad, and he said, “okay, but not having an arm won’t prevent her from walking and going anywhere she wants to,” and that changed her mindset completely. When I was a fourth grader in elementary school, she even went to graduate school in the U.K. for disability studies. She’s just a person that’s so full of vitality.
In your third year of high school, you won the 8th National High School English Speech Contest, with a speech on the individual and social models of disability. It’s been four years since then, and 2020 is fast approaching. Have you felt any changes in the environment around you or in society since you presented that speech?
No. I think the Paralympics itself is seen in parallel with the Olympics, but obviously, not all people with disabilities are para athletes. On the one hand, para athletes are becoming more active, and are featured more in the media. But on the other hand, there are also people with disabilities living normal lives, who just want to be sleeping at home. And recently, I feel that these two sides are becoming more and more polarized.
Until just recently, I believed that the more I went on TV and showed how active I was as a para athlete, the more it would help change the environment surrounding other people with disabilities as well. But then my mom said, “in the grand scheme of disability, you would be part of the elite,” and that started to change my mindset. Now I understand that it’s impossible, and not my place, for me to speak for all people with disabilities.
This has nothing to do with disability, but I think Japanese culture in general has a tendency to categorize everything. Making biased assumptions, and categorizing people in ways they may not want to be categorized. I guess one thing that’s changed since I was a third year in high school is that now I want to speak more on things like this, instead of speaking primarily as a person with a disability.
Recently, you said you wanted to move from your sort of public relations role to just concentrating on improving your competitive ability. You’ve also mentioned that the uptick in attention concerning para sports may not necessarily be a good thing.
I think my job as an athlete is to achieve something great, and have everyone really, truly think that what I did was incredible. The more time passes, the more I feel like I want to focus on producing results as an athlete.
When I go out into the media to be this kind of public relations figure, I have no control over how people react to it—how they feel, what they think. I do believe it’s meaningful in some way, but it’s very difficult. I just wish both sides—the people doing the communicating, and the people being communicated to—could see people more as individuals. Obviously, I don’t know what it feels like to have total blindness, or to be in a wheelchair, and so it wouldn’t be right for people to think I speak on the behalf of all people with disabilities. I think people in Japan find it difficult to see things that way—each person as an individual.
Do you normally talk about this sort of thing with your para athlete peers?
Recently we were talking about iPS cells, and we were asking each other, “would you grow an arm if you could?” [laughs]. But most of them said they would want to stay the way they are. One of them, who’s in a wheelchair, said, “I’m used to my wheelchair now, so I don’t need legs to get around.” Out of the people who weren’t born with their disabilities, there was one that said, “I’d want to grow it back if I could, but only after Tokyo.” Everyone got really excited in Australia too, when I brought this topic up to para athletes on the local team. Things like, “if I had legs I wouldn’t be able to be in the Paralympics, so I’ll wait until after the Paralympics” [laughs]. It’s very interesting. Pretty soon we’ll be able to design everything about our bodies. That’d be awful and scary in its own way, though [laughs].
Born in Kyoto in 1997. Member of the Kindai University swimming team. Born with a congenital deficiency of her right forearm. Has an S9, SB9, and SM9 para swimming classification. Began swimming when she was a year and a half old at the Kyoto Municipal Sports Center of the Disabled Persons. In 2010, she became the youngest person at the time to compete in the Asian Para Games, and won a silver medal for the 50m freestyle. Since then, she has spent her junior high and high school years winning numerous medals in tournaments in Japan and Asia. In the Rio 2016 Paralympics, she set a personal best in the 100m freestyle (S9 class).