Photographs by Mika NINAGAWA │ Interview & Text by Senichi ZOSHIGAYA
A Captain Doesn’t Need to Be Great:
The World Captured by 12 Very Different People
Players tackling each other with their full weight. Falling. Being slammed violently against the floor. Dull crashes reverberating through the gymnasium every few seconds. In contrast to the ominous nickname “murderball” by which wheelchair rugby formerly went, Yukinobu Ike was a man with an almost anticlimactically mild demeanor and a gentle, unequivocal way of speaking backed by a solid career and self-confidence. He is the captain of Japan’s national wheelchair rugby team. They dominated the GIO 2018 IWRF Wheelchair Rugby World Championship, and the global pandemic hit just as prospects were looking good for 2020. In this interview, conducted right before the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games, the mature veteran reflects on the COVID-19 pandemic, leadership theory, and life in the United States. He also discusses the thoughts he would like to share as a father with his sons, who are pushing forward toward their own dreams.
Really having a place to complain gives you relief, and supporting that can encourage players and change the way things are going.
It was a difficult year and a half for all the athletes striving toward the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games because of the global pandemic continuing since 2020. Could you go over what kind of time this year and a half was for you?
What I felt first and foremost was an enigmatic fear. Because in the beginning, how much lethal potential COVID-19 had and how scary it was were very vague. Naturally I got anxious, so it was a time that made me realize once again how precious the things we normally did were and appreciate that I, my family, and my friends were healthy.
If there was anything you gained in the last year and a half, what was it?
Maybe the national team and I were a bit overly enthusiastic about the Tokyo Paralympic Games, or if COVID-19 hadn’t spread and we had rushed toward the Paralympic Games in 2020 as originally planned, perhaps the team would have in some ways not been mature enough. That’s why, in a sense, this postponement was also a period that made us grow. We had established that our peak condition would be in August 2020 for a long time, so we had to wipe the slate clean in one sweep for everything we had calculated backwards and planned from that. We thought we would have to grind forward from the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games toward 2020 all in one breath, but it’s like we took a big, deep breath.
A deep breath?
I mean you rework the plan after giving an order of precedence to all sorts of things you valued, organizing them, and reevaluating yourself. Before now I couldn’t make the time I wanted for my family (because I set aside a lot of time for rugby). Now I have two sons, one who’s 14 and one who who’s 11, but tournaments and training camps often overlap with school events like sports days, and I had only done those events with them a couple of times. That’s how much I didn’t have time for my family and kids. The COVID-19 pandemic increased face-to-face time with my kids, and it felt to me like a summer break for adults. It was also time when I could do things I hadn’t been able to do previously in my life: clean the area around my house a little, get my boating license and go fishing, which I love. I unintentionally look toward the negatives, so I thought I should make an effort to change the negatives to positives for my own life in the future.
I imagine there were many people who tried to be conscious about doing that, but their feelings and actions diverged. There are probably still many people struggling with that now.
It was also more complicated for me for about the first month. I didn’t really absorb the reality quickly, and it didn’t turn positive right away. But I’m someone who has a lot of things come along just when life is starting to go well and in an instant, “Bam!” Suddenly they don’t go well (laughs). I lost physical ability and my friend in the traffic accident. Somehow I ended up not losing my life, but I went through more than 40 surgeries in two and a half years. Even when they said, “This time it’s the last surgery,” or “All the surgeries finish with this one,” progress after the surgery would be disappointing, and another surgery would soon come along. There was no end in sight, and it shook my core every time. After starting wheelchair basketball, I was finally picked for a training camp as a candidate for the Japanese national team, and just when I joined the training camp and saw the opportunity to participate in an international competition at last, they found an aneurysm in my leg joint, so I had to quit exercising for a while. I didn’t make a complete recovery for three years because of a stress fracture, and I soon came up against the despair that I couldn’t even make any effort. I wonder if I became more cautious the better things were going and learned to put my feelings behind me because I had those kinds of experiences.
You were saying that when you first got together to practice as the national team after COVID-19, you were surprised at the decline in individual interpersonal skills. Do you remember what the team atmosphere was like when you were once again aiming for the Tokyo Paralympic Games in 2021?
Everyone’s interpersonal skills had certainly deteriorated, but of course there was more joy at being able to meet after such a long time. It felt like we all told each other where we had fallen behind and found it out in a very positive way, laughing like, “Wow, now you can’t do this!” But first of all, we were grateful that we could get together. Of course, discussion of whether to hold training camps was tough, and the players and staff repeatedly debated all sorts of risks and infection control measures. Sometimes it was a tense atmosphere, but it wasn’t anything in particular to worry about because everyone was heading in the same direction.
What sort of difficulties did you feel as captain of the Japanese national team during the COVID-19 pandemic? How did you communicate with teammates, staff, and coaches?
When it was decided that the 2020 Paralympic Games would be postponed, we each commented our opinions right away in the team LINE (messaging app) group. I felt before anything else that it was important to share my thoughts and feelings, so I also put all my feelings into words all at once and sent them. It’s true that, of the players, there were some who didn’t get over their feelings successfully and some whose motivation didn’t improve and who were mentally down. But at the time, I thought that was fine. People have their own timing, and if they were forced even though it wasn’t the right time, they would carry those negative feelings with them and not be able to move forward. All the athletes were of a level to be selected for the Japanese national team, and I believed they had that strength, so I didn’t force communication or do anything at all to press anyone. On the other hand, I was proactive about sharing what I was working on at the time and my practice schedule to ease the minds of the trainers and coaches. Of course, it’s important for fellow players to connect, but I wanted to make sure not to worry Head Coach Kevin Orr, who lives in the United States, and the trainers who live far away.
You communicated not only with the players but included the staff and the people around the team even when the whole team was in crisis. That wouldn’t have gone well unless teamwork had always been good.
We probably communicated a lot between everyone on the national team when something happened. We can see everyone trying their best, and everyone can acknowledge one another, but there are still different kinds of players, so I think revealing weak points and struggles is also important. Even the things we have difficulty with or are angry about. Really having a place to complain gives you relief, and supporting that can encourage players and change the way things are going. All kinds of players come and go from the national team, so even if there are players who haven’t gotten on board right away, I show them with my behavior that I’m waiting a bit ahead for them to catch up. I tried to treat them with that sort of intuition.
In the on-the-spot, online interview that was conducted just before this one, I was impressed that so many reporters also asked questions about your captaincy and leadership. How has your approach to your own image of captain changed since you were appointed captain of the Japanese national team in 2014?
I’m thankful that getting all these interviews about being captain has had the effect on the other side of making me realize more about my own image of captain (laughs). I often read books for myself on topics like leadership theory because I’m interested, and for me personally, the ideal leader is someone who has a sense of justice while preserving the core of who they are and who listens to everyone impartially. If the captain drags people along forcefully and does everything himself, the people around him may not want to grow or say their opinions, as if it were enough that the captain himself is great.
This topic relates to the consciousness of giving the team a place where they can really complain, like you were saying before.
Right. I, as the captain, discuss things with everyone and occasionally pretend I can’t do something or purposely, of my own accord, don’t do something for someone else. Relying on someone means passing the legacy on to the future, and being the captain doesn’t mean I do too much of this or that. There are times I think, “I want to make this comment, but what will happen if I hold off for now?” and deliberately don’t say something.
Were you the type who brought together the people around you and was a leader since childhood?
When my friends got together, I was probably relatively quick to take the lead. I was captain of the basketball club in junior high school, and there was a time I was captain of the team I belonged to when I did wheelchair basketball, too. But rather than always having the same attitude, it feels like I mix the things I’ve read in various books and the parts I felt were good about the leaders I’ve actually met before within myself, trying things out and fumbling for the way. I’m grateful Head Coach Kevin Orr told me, “You’re doing enough. I have nothing to say.” But part of me also grows from being scolded, so sometimes I want to be scolded (laughs).
The 12 team members contending for Tokyo 2020 were just announced. Compared with the time of the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games, there’s a wider range of ages, and Kae Kurahashi, who was chosen for the national team starting in 2017, was also selected as the first female athlete (see Editor’s Notes*). You’ll vie to compete along with athletes who each have their own marked individuality. How do you view this team composition?
The 12 athletes contending for Tokyo 2020 have a lot of character from the aspect of their play. They certainly vary a bit in age, and the team is distinctive for the increased number from the younger generation. They still seem to defer to the older people off the court, so I’d like to create an atmosphere where the young players can express themselves much more freely. It’s important that they point out things the veteran players don’t realize. I’d like them to step forward a little more because they’re the members responsible for the team’s future beyond the Tokyo Paralympic Games.
* Wheelchair rugby is a mixed-gender competition, with Kae Kurahashi being the first female athlete on the Japanese national team. Each of the four players that enters the court is allotted a number of points, divided into seven levels depending on the degree of their disability and their motor function. The lowest number of points, for people with more severe disabilities, is 0.5, and the points proceed in intervals of 0.5 from there, with a maximum point number of 3.5. A female athlete on the court adds 0.5 to the team’s total allotted points. Each team must be composed of four players with a total of eight or fewer allotted points.
What made me feel the meaning of my existence again was that I felt the happiest living in the United States.
The Rio Paralympic Games ended in a bronze medal, and the national team conquered the world championship after that, in 2018. They competed in the top eight of the world rankings in the 2019 World Wheelchair Rugby Challenge and were defeated by the powerhouse Australian team in the semifinals to land at third place. As a team that’s first-time defending champions, I think you’ve experienced the difficulty of being the ones to beat. I heard you say, “We haven’t gone through all our unfinished business, and we won’t get too excited as a team.”
For a while after winning the world championship, there was a mood and self-awareness on the team of keeping the “best in the world” spot, but opinions from players and staff that our performance had declined started to leak out after that. I wanted to win everything to push on to Tokyo 2020. It was hard, but I thought it was important to challenge ourselves in that way. But there was an uncomfortable feeling on the team that losing made us stronger, or we learned more when we lost. I didn’t confirm that with everyone, but I sensed some half-heartedness. Substituting players and giving them chances are important from the perspective of strengthening in the long term, but I still personally wanted to pursue that intimidation factor of continuing to win every game, every competition. That conflict was definitely there, but now I think I should have communicated more about where we were going as a team.
You yourself set your sights on the big moment of the Tokyo Paralympic Games initially planned for 2020 and moved the base of your activities to the United States. You joined the team there and decided to battle it out in round robins.
I was added to the Alabama team and joined the American league for one season, from October 2018 to April 2019. I was in my best condition, just about better than I had ever been in the past. Add to that the bit of bravery it took to go abroad, and it was the best timing in my competitive life. The team I chose was the Lakeshore Demolition, who were last place in Division 2, and the team’s abilities were such that I couldn’t lead them to victory unless I did my best. But there was a famous site nearby where the American national team set up a training camp, with a pool, a gym for working out, and three gymnasiums, and it was even fully equipped with a boarding house. Kevin Orr, the head coach of the Japanese national team, also lived about 30 minutes away by car, and the place was perfect as an environment devoted to rugby. I ultimately succeeded in boosting the team to fifth place in Division 1, but our skills were no match against teams that compete at the top of the pan-American league, with players like Daisuke Ikezaki and Shinichi Shimakawa, who are also on the Japanese national team.
The North American teams, including Canada, will also be Japan’s rivals in the Paralympic Games. What aspect of your play do you feel developed the most significantly through your experience in the United States?
Actually, nothing much changed about my view of rugby, but I wanted to play like I did on the Japanese national team. For communication, I could only speak broken English, and I thought first I should go along with what they were trying to do. Also, level-wise for the team, they would get upset if there were big point differences between players and start playing without concentrating, so I demanded they do the minimum if they were going to get on the court, saying “The game isn’t over yet!” or “Keep playing!” Strategically, I wasn’t going to teach them the Japanese national team’s key attack strategy, either, so if anything, I used a so-called “American” style of playing in which the high-pointers rush out one after another. And the Lakeshore team gradually got stronger by combining the strategies they thought of with the ones I thought of. It’s not that we were playing rugby with some elaborate strategy, but it was the best team in the sense of having a variety of experiences.
How was living in the United States? I can imagine there were difficulties aside from playing since you were living there in a wheelchair and had set out on your own.
I worked out by myself in my free time, went shopping, cooked for myself…I did everything on my own. My teammates took me shopping, but the best thing was that talking to all kinds of players allowed me to face how to move forward in my own competitive life and my life from now on. A player with no hands or feet invited me out for sushi, and I got in that person’s car, but I thought it would be so scary to get in a car driven by someone with no arms (laughs). But actually, when I got in, I admired how well they drove. A player who became disabled because he took a hit to the neck in battle also told me, “My goals changed to something bigger thanks to you coming here.” I got a fresh understanding that I can actually do things I had been holding back from until now or thought I couldn’t do because I have various handicaps. I found a moment to change things to positives through my own influence, whether in Japan or abroad. In that way, what made me feel the meaning of my existence again was that I felt the happiest living in the United States. Oh, right! I also went bass fishing with Head Coach Kevin Orr, and it was the best memory because that had been my dream since I was a kid (laughs).
Did you decide you were only going to spend one season in the United States from the beginning, before you went?
Yes, because I intended to focus on strengthening the team in Japan for the Tokyo Paralympic Games from 2020. But I got an offer to continue for a second season after I left the United States. I was very grateful, but I refused and told them, “After the Tokyo Paralympic Games” (laughs).
For many para-athletes, there aren’t many competitions at all throughout the year, and there’s a small competitive population and few teams in Japan. It’s difficult to have an environment where you routinely work hard with players from abroad unless you create it intentionally and distinctly. Do you think you’d like to instill your own experience in the younger generation?
Of course, I’d like them to keep trying. Honestly, knowing and learning about society more extensively is more important than rugby. After all, even for the national team, para-athletes and rugby are a very, very small world and only a small section of society. They should go out into the world and see the parts that aren’t just their own previous sphere to instill that in someone. You can get as much information as you like on the internet, but it’s very important to go to those places and understand unfiltered opinions and sensations from experience. The world around rugby has developed now in Japan, so there must be more we can contribute in the future, including to how things are in developing countries and outreach. So I’d like to do those kinds of things.
But by taking on challenges, I wanted to make sure to embody for my sons looking at things not just by the measure of the environment where I grew up in Kochi Prefecture but by a larger measure and that putting yourself out there improves your possibilities.
We talked a little about your two sons at the beginning of the interview. What’s your family’s reaction to your participation in the Tokyo Paralympic Games now?
I sent a message to our family LINE group: “I was chosen to participate in the Paralympic Games!” My son sent me a surprised response that said, “Huh? That wasn’t already decided?” (laughs). My older and younger son both play soccer. The older one lives away from home, in a dorm in Shizuoka, obsessed with playing soccer every day.
Do you and your sons normally talk about each other’s games?
Yeah. I talk to my older son about how to have confidence and what to do when he’s nervous or things don’t go well. But they’re probably not looking for an opinion from their dad (laughs). But I tell them no one has it easy, and everyone needs to work hard to make progress toward their dreams.
Actually, my sons were another reason I went to the United States. From my sons’ perspectives, there were a lot of things I didn’t do for them because I was in a wheelchair since they were born. But by taking on challenges, I wanted to make sure to embody for my sons looking at things not just by the measure of the environment where I grew up in Kochi Prefecture but by a larger measure and that putting yourself out there improves your possibilities. That’s what led to my resolution to go to the United States.
I have no doubt that your goal, as you already stated, is to win a gold medal at the Tokyo Paralympic Games, which your sons will also watch closely. Tell me what’s most important for that goal.
Well, we’ll just about have to improvise, but if I think about the team’s prior results and preparations, I’m confident we’re in an advantageous position. The game with France that’s our first match will be the most important to gain the confidence that we can push ahead on our own strength once the Tokyo Paralympic Games start. There are bound to be lots of realizations after we finish that battle. For now, I would like to prepare everything for that game.
Yukinobu Ike was born in Kochi Prefecture in 1980. He is Class 3.0 in wheelchair rugby. He began playing basketball when he was in junior high school, but at the age of 19, he was involved in a traffic accident that severed his left leg. He also suffered burns to more than 70 percent of his body and lost sensation in his left hand. In 2012, he switched from wheelchair basketball to wheelchair rugby. He has served as the captain of Japan’s national wheelchair rugby team since 2014, leading them to win their first-ever bronze medal at the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games. In 2018, the team won their first world championship. From October 2019 to the following April, Ike played as a member of the USA Wheelchair Rugby Team in Birmingham, Alabama. His goal for Tokyo 2020 is to win gold in his second consecutive Paralympic Games as captain. He belongs to the Nikko Asset Management team.