Photographs by Mika NINAGAWA │ Interview & Text by Senichi ZOSHIGAYA
Turning 6.0m Into Reality
The Trusted, Unconquerable Queen Heads to Her Fourth Paralympic Games
Throughout her athletics career, Maya Nakanishi has constantly been faced with challenging headwinds. Barely a year into her career as an athletics athlete, she participated in the Beijing 2008 Paralympic Games. As a rising star of the Japanese para athletics community, she shouldered their high expectations for her future. Later, she relocated to the US on her own at a time when it was still unusual for para-athletes to base themselves and their training overseas. Most people did not understand her decision to train under a foreign coach. She was also beset by financial troubles. Nevertheless, she made it to London 2012 and Rio 2016. However, despite her determined personality, she was unable to leave a mark at either Games. She considered retiring many times, but each time found herself unwilling to give up on athletics. In 2019, she finally won her first, much-coveted gold medal at the World Para Athletics Championships. Then last year, at 35 years old, she set a new Asian record. Unconquerable—there’s no better way to describe Nakanishi. Still, her journey isn’t over yet. When she first started athletics, she vowed to reach 6.0m. That mark is now within reach.
I’ve gone through a lot in the past, and I thought about quitting athletics many times.
But I kept adjusting to the circumstances, and that ability to adapt is actually helping me right now.
That realization kind of made me look back on my life.
At the Hyogo Athletics Championships on July 11, you jumped 5.46m and won. It seems your preparations for Tokyo 2020 are going well.
They’re not bad, and haven’t been for a while. But ideally, there are things I wished could be better, both in terms of my own technical skills as well as my prosthetic. I was struggling with the adjustments on my prosthetic, and even now, I’m making really hard and very minor changes. But in terms of training, yes, it’s going very well.
You’ve gone through a lot to be here, with Tokyo 2020 now right around the corner. But how was this past year and a half for you, from 2020 to today?
I’m a little old-fashioned in some ways. Even with so many social media platforms and messaging apps like LINE available to make it easy to communicate with others, I still prefer sending or giving handwritten letters(laughs). During the COVID-19 pandemic, I heard a lot of people saying it’s tough because they can’t meet others. It made me realize anew how important it is to meet people in person and be able to interact with them. At the beginning of the pandemic, in particular, I hoped more people would come to realize that and find calm in their hearts.
On the one hand, online video conference tools grew in popularity. On the other, we’ve grown used to a society with fewer opportunities for communication on a physical level. That must have affected athletes in many ways.
In my case, my mental counseling coach lived in a different region to begin with, so I was used to the remote sessions. But since I couldn’t meet my trainer in person, we came up with training menus that took into consideration the risks of getting hurt. While being careful not to drop the quality of the training sessions, they’re now designed to leave me just tired enough that I can deal with the fatigue on my own through self-care. Also, before the pandemic, I used to go get my prosthetic adjusted frequently, but during the emergency declarations, it was difficult to meet in person to get the adjustments done. So I spent a lot more time talking on the phone with the prosthetist. With the limited time we had, we needed to really compress our conversations.
I was also really worried about athletes from other countries. Since some of those countries had implemented lockdowns earlier than Japan and had more strict regulations, it felt to me that they were being told, through legal measures, to give up on their dreams. It must have been so hard, but when I reached out to them, they were all really positive. Knowing that they endured those hardships for an entire year and continued preparing for the Games, I often spoke with my friends and thought about how Japan, as the host country, can prepare to welcome them.
When you don’t know how things will turn out, it’s not easy to keep training every day and adapting to the changing environment, is it?
I’ve gone through a lot in the past, and I thought about quitting athletics many times. But I kept adjusting to the circumstances, and that ability to adapt is actually helping me right now. That realization kind of made me look back on my life. Since I was always on the road, participating in tournaments, it wasn’t often that I was at home for such extended periods of time as I am now. It makes it easier to switch between being an athlete and being an everyday citizen, so in a sense, the pandemic has made me feel more at ease.
Not nervous or concerned, but at ease?
Well, let me describe what my daily life was like as a competitive athlete until now. I designed training menus around the track stadium’s schedule. I also had to keep track of people’s schedules like my trainer, counseling coach and staff. Then I needed to see who’s open and what time I could start training and so on. I also had to go around scheduling appointments for interviews like this and give courtesy calls. When I went away on tournaments, I also had to organize places for my dog to stay. My room was overflowing with suitcases and I was only sleeping in my bed several times a year. So it was impossible to even cook at home like I’m doing now.
But you know, no matter how much I mull over this,
there’s nothing I can do in the end except win.
I have to show everyone that I’m having a great life.
After the COVID-19 pandemic started, you left Oita Prefecture, where you had been based for many years, and moved to Osaka. It’s usually stressful and difficult for athletes to change their surroundings. To do so the year before Tokyo 2020 must have taken a lot of courage.
It was really hard(laughs). I moved to Osaka just before the first declaration of a state of emergency. Immediately after that, a number of people I knew in Oita, family and friends, passed away one after another. But I had nowhere I could go to cry and no friends close by to talk to. I was forced to stay inside my house, and I tried to keep myself distracted by building a foundation for my new life, but there were moments when I thought, “This is bad.” And even if the Paralympic Games are held, we still need to figure out a way to properly handle COVID-19, so I think it’ll be difficult to return to Oita until that happens. Even now, I’m just praying that the day I can return home will come quickly.
You lived in the US for a while, and you traveled abroad extensively for tournaments, so it would seem that you have a lot of experience adapting to new environments. But it sounds like this move may not have been completely positive. What was different about this one that made it difficult?
In the past, whenever I’d leave, everyone would cheer me on from the bottom of their hearts as they saw me off. I’d tell myself I could do this and that I’d come home feeling proud. But when I made the move to Osaka, it was rushed to begin with. I had no choice but to leave to protect my aging family who I had been living with in Oita. I was a little shocked and upset, because I felt I was being a burden to my family. So those thoughts weighed on my mind as I left. I had worked hard in Oita for so long, aiming to take on the world with everyone in the community, so needing to leave without being able to express my gratitude to everyone who helped me felt like I was betraying them. But you know, no matter how much I mull over this, there’s nothing I can do in the end except win. I have to show everyone that I’m having a great life.
You mentioned that you still want to go home to Oita as soon as possible. But you felt the need to move to Osaka, set new goals and concentrate on training, right?
In the end, no matter what advice anyone gives you, or who you consult, you’re the one who has to make the final decision. And once you’ve made that decision, no matter what happens, you need to take responsibility for it. I was prepared to do that when I left Oita. I also know that wherever you go, there are people you only get to meet in that place. So I turned a new page and told myself that something good would come from valuing those new connections. Finally, like I mentioned before, I was more fortunate than my friends from overseas since I wasn’t prohibited from training altogether. I always kept them on my mind whenever I trained and promised to work hard on their behalf too.
Did you get to make new connections in Osaka?
There’s a track stadium in Hirakata City that I sometimes get to use for training, and the mayor there personally gave me a lot of encouragement. He also got a banner put up at the city office to cheer on my participation at Tokyo 2020. Also, when I first moved to Itami City and went to greet the mayor, he introduced me to a lot of people involved in athletics and sports associations. He also pointed me to river banks that could serve as training places and gave me a lot of other advice.
Even though Tokyo 2020 was postponed, you went along with your initial plan to peak in the summer of 2020 and, in fact, broke the Asian record that you held by jumping 5.70m at the Japan Para Athletics Championships in September 2020. As you mentioned, 2020 was a difficult year for you, both mentally and physically. How did the results of the Championships boost your morale?
The Games were postponed, but that didn’t mean my goal had been taken away. So I wanted to go through with my initial plan and see whether what I had wanted to achieve was the right thing to do. I’m very happy with the result of the Championships last year. I was confident going in and was able to perform well. Even though there were no spectators, the atmosphere was good, and I think the fact that I was able to bring out my best performance under those circumstances is proof of the growth I achieved by winning the gold medal at the World Para Athletics Championships in 2019.
Do you feel that your long-held goal of exceeding 6.0m is within reach now?
That’s always been my unwavering goal from the time I started competing. After setting the record last September, I was able to increase the intensity of my training in 2021. The timing and methods I use to peak will be the same as last year, but I can feel the drastic change in intensity.
Before, I used to look at [the 6.0m mark]
and think how far away it was.
But recently, I feel like it’s right there in front of me. I’m seeing 6.0m as a real possibility.
6.0m. Tell us again what this number means to you and how you’ve been upholding this goal throughout your athletics career.
I set that goal in my early 20s, but back then, nobody knew who I was and most people didn’t give me the time of day. I started athletics after my accident when I was 21, but neither my junior high school nor high school had an athletics team, so I didn’t have a mentor or anyone I could rely on when it came to athletics. Sometimes, when I was desperate, I would go see my old mentor at high school, but since all the advice was from a soft tennis point of view, it didn’t really help me(laughs). Since I was constantly struggling on my own, I was really envious of athletes who had always been doing athletics. But you know, I kept going, and even without being able to make a breakthrough, when I was a little over 30, people started cheering me on and more staff members joined my team who I could feel comfortable around. That took some weight off my shoulders and I was able to focus more time on the sport.
I’m sure a lot of sports fans have seen athletes shouldering many years of expectations while being unable to produce results, but who nevertheless keep fighting and keep moving forward.
In my 20s, when I went to talk to companies about a sponsorship, they’d look at me quizzically and ask, “Paralympic Games? What’s that?”(laughs). Honestly, I feel that if I had been able to have what I have now when I was in my 20s, I would have been able to reach my goal of 6.0m much sooner. But I don’t want to lose all that I’ve built up from the moment I began athletics. That sentiment grows stronger and stronger every day. With the confidence of having come so far without quitting, I know that as long as I don’t give up, I’ll be able to jump 6.0m. That feeling grows more and more real every day.
Last year, when you set the new 5.70m record, you said, “So that’s what 6.0m feels like.” Was there a moment when you felt sure that that goal is realistically within reach?
When I train with my coach, Daisuke, he always marks the 6.0m point for me. Before, I used to look at it and think how far away it was. But recently, I feel like it’s right there in front of me. I’m seeing 6.0m as a real possibility.
After the World Para Athletics Championships, you made a comment saying, “I think it’s about time to become an athlete people can trust.” I’ve always wanted to ask what you meant by that. “An athlete people can trust.” Those are pretty powerful words.
(Laughs) I tend to spout whatever’s on my mind, which is probably why I get criticisms from all over the place. Back when I got into the accident that took my leg, the prevalent view of people with disabilities was that we were in socially weak positions and could get anything we wanted by just sitting still. People still really thought of us like that, and I hated it. I mean, think about it. Even if your mother takes care of you, after she dies, you need to live on your own. Whether you’re a man or a woman, you need to be able to live and take care of yourself. I always felt strongly about that. In addition, I had a pretty aggressive personality back then(laughs) so no matter how well I performed, there were a lot of people who’d snidely say, “Well, there were so few contestants to begin with” or “The Japanese record is nothing compared to the world record.”
So you had a hard time being accepted for who you are.
At the same time, though, it also brought a lot of expectations. But for a long time, I wasn’t able to win when it mattered most. I was always saying, “I want to jump 6.0m” and “I’m going to win gold!” but I wasn’t jumping 6.0m and I wasn’t winning gold. There was a time when I even felt that people were expecting me to fail rather than succeed… So when I finally won the gold medal at the World Para Athletics Championships and got up onto the highest podium, I felt that I needed to become an athlete who people could cheer on. I wanted people to be able to say, “Maya Nakanishi is the representative of Japan” and send me off with confidence because, “We have Nakanishi on our side!” I think that’s what was on my mind when I made that particular comment(laughs). I think with Tokyo 2020, I’ve been able to gain the trust of many people. They cheer me on and I feel that they’re confident I’ll pull off something incredible.
In your mind, is there a difference between winning a medal and setting a new record?
I want to win a medal for everyone’s sake, but I want to set a new record for my sake.
We look forward to seeing you make history as the Unconquerable Queen at Tokyo 2020.
The Hyogo Athletics Championships two days ago was the first time in a while that I participated in a track meet with able-bodied athletes. In the past, when I competed alongside able-bodied athletes, a part of me always used to draw a line between their results and mine, and I would think, “I’m competing in my own category.” But this time, I was mentally standing on the same field as them. I didn’t feel like I would lose. I was really intending to win against them. It didn’t end up being that way, but I could tell that I had gained a lot of confidence in what I’ve been doing. I’m going to aim to win at Tokyo 2020 too!
Born in 1985. Nakanishi competes in the athletics long jump event, in the T64 classification(single lower limb prosthetic). As a student growing up in Oita Prefecture, she devoted her days to playing soft tennis. When she was 21 years old, she was involved in a work-related accident and had to amputate her right leg. Since she had been running as part of her soft tennis training, she decided to try para athletics. The first time she competed in the Japan Para Athletics Championships, she broke the Japanese records in the 100m and 200m races at the time. At 23 years old, she competed in two events at Beijing 2008. She went on to compete consecutively in the subsequent Paralympic Games: London 2012(long jump) and Rio 2016(long jump and 100m). In 2019, she won her first gold medal at the World Para Athletics Championships in Dubai, which earned her a place on the Japanese delegation to Tokyo 2020. In September 2020, she set a new Asian record of 5.70m at the Japan Para Athletics Championships, raising expectations to see her reach 6.0m. She is a member of Hankyu Travel International Co., Ltd.