Photo/IllutrationRoad cyclist Yurie Kanuma, left, and track-and-field athlete Saki Takakuwa, right, touch a gold medal depicted in a giant mural painted by Shingo Katori, formerly of male idol group SMAP, at the entrance of the Nippon Foundation Paralympic Support Center in Tokyo’s Minato Ward. (Hiroki Endo)

  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion

In his role as The Asahi Shimbun’s special navigator of the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics, ex-SMAP idol Shingo Katori interviewed two of Japan’s top para-athletes to find out what drives them to go for gold.

Paralympians Saki Takakuwa, a track-and-field athlete, and Yurie Kanuma, a road cyclist, met with Katori in the place where, three years ago, he painted a colorful mural at the entrance to the Nippon Foundation Paralympic Support Center in Tokyo’s Minato Ward, which supports “parasports” associations.

Excerpts of the interviews follow:

Kanuma: (touching Katori's mural) Is this a “gold medal”?

Katori: Yes. I painted this gold medal by applying paint directly from tubes on the mural without using brushes to create unevenness in the hope that even visually impaired people can touch and feel the painted gold medal. I painted it in the lower part of the mural so that wheelchair users can also easily touch and feel its texture.

Takakuwa: I’m ashamed to say, but I’ve never seen this mural properly.

Katori: I painted this mural in conjunction with the opening of the Paralympic Support Center in 2015. How do you like it?

Takakuwa: The use of colors and the balance (of composition) are lovely.

Kanuma: It’s my first time to touch the mural. I feel something warm.

Katori: Have you visited here before, Kanuma-san?

Kanuma: Yeah, I’ve been here several times.

Katori: Why didn’t you touch it?

Kanuma: What?! I felt that I should not touch.

Katori: I even coated the surface of the mural. I wish more people would touch it.

Kanuma, Takakuwa: We will let people know (that the mural is designed to be touched).

ROADS TO PARALYMPIC SUCCESS

One of Japan’s leading track-and-field athletes, Saki Takakuwa, 25, from Kumagaya, Saitama Prefecture, had her left leg amputated below the knee due to bone cancer when she was a first-year junior high school student.

Takakuwa began competing in track and field when she was a first-year student at Tokyo Seitoku University Fukaya High School.

She made her Paralympic debut at the 2012 London Games, and went on to win the bronze medal in the woman’s T44 long jump at the 2015 IPC Athletics World Championships in Doha, Qatar.

At the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Paralympics, Takakuwa finished fifth in the woman’s T44 long jump, eighth in the women’s 100-meter Paralympic sprint and seventh in the 200 meters. She is affiliated with Avex Group Holdings.

Yurie Kanuma, 36, was introduced to Nordic skiing events at the age of 25 after graduating from Tokyo Metropolitan Bunkyo School for the Blind. She finished seventh in the women’s 1-kilometer sprint classic for the visually impaired at the 2010 Vancouver Winter Paralympics.

Kanuma made her athletic career switch to para-cycling in 2012, and won silver in the women’s road cycling time trial at the Rio Paralympics in 2016. Her next challenge is the para triathlon. Kanuma is affiliated with Wits-Community Co.

OVERCOMING ADVERSITY

Katori: Takakuwa-san, you lost your left leg below the knee. And Kanuma-san, you were born with visual impairment. Why did you make up your mind to do sports even after you lost some of your bodily functions?

Takakuwa: My left leg was amputated below the knee at the age of 13 when I was a first-year junior high school student. I actually had an option to keep the leg, but I decided to have it amputated for the sake of playing sports.

Katori: What do you mean by that?

Takakuwa: I was playing tennis by that time, so I just couldn’t imagine my life without playing sports. I preferred to have a movable artificial leg instead of keeping an immovable leg, because I thought it would allow me to do various things.

Katori: You really wanted to continue playing sports, no matter what, before deciding whether to have your leg amputated or not. And how about you, Kanuma-san?

Kanuma: I have visual acuity of 0.02 and do not have central vision. School gym classes were the only time I moved my body. But I had an opportunity to participate in a cross-country training camp, and I learned of an athlete who had only one hand who was actually skiing.

Katori: Wow, that’s something.

Kanuma: The athlete exuded tremendous, furious energy by skiing. I made a full-fledged start to my athletic career in Nordic skiing events in 2008. I participated in the 2010 Vancouver Paralympics and listened as Japan’s national anthem was played at an awards ceremony in which a friend of mine was honored. I was deeply touched. I thought I also wanted to win a gold medal--that’s how I started to get really into it.

Katori: There are people who are born disabled like Kanuma-san, while there are other people who one day suddenly lost some of their body functions, just like Takakuwa-san. In the face of such para-athletes, I wonder if I could become like that ... but I can hardly imagine what it would be like. How did your family react (to your disabilities)?

Takakuwa: My family members had more mixed feelings than I did because there were no disabled people around us.

Katori: I see.

Takakuwa: My parents respected my will “to be able to work by myself.” Therefore, they encouraged me by saying, “Do whatever you want,” instead of saying, “Don’t do that because it’s dangerous.” Even so, my mother actually wanted to take me to and from my junior high school for three years while I commuted by bicycle alone.

Katori: Did your family also nurture your self-reliance, Kanuma-san?

Kanuma: I was asked to shop for the family more often than my older brother. My family encouraged me to climb Mount Koyasan ahead of a school excursion with the hope that I would be able to keep up with other students’ walking speeds on the day of the excursion.

Katori: Both of your families have been strict on you, but filled you with encompassing love. I feel the two of you are so calm. Such serenity exuding from you makes me hardly believe that you are athletes who compete in hotly contested games. I truly want to see you on fire in the events at the Tokyo Paralympics with less than 1,000 days to go.

Takakuwa: You bet. You’ll see me all fired up. The mission of athletes is to demonstrate how appealing parasports are. Regarding the Paralympics, my mission is to become an athlete who will be able to give an impressive performance at the arena.

Kanuma: While scaling the heights in the event, I want to overcome a wall within myself. I want to continue my daily training so I can feel I have given it my all when I cross the finishing line.

Katori: Could you also tell me your goal?

Takakuwa: My goal is to get in contention for a medal by running 100 meters in 12-plus seconds and performing a nearly 6-meter jump.

Kanuma: I won a medal in cycling at the Rio Paralympics. But I wasn’t able to fully expend myself. Then the word “ironman” just came to mind.

I decided to give it everything I’ve got with this event. I will strive to challenge my limitations with the triathlon this time.

Katori: Through this encounter with you, I was able to learn about your passions and events of the Paralympics. Now, I want people to learn about the world of parasports through “Shingo Katori.”

I would be happy if people would say, “Shingo-chan, you learned such things. I also didn’t know about that.”

Takakuwa: It would be fantastic if Katori-san can play a role to raise up parasports.

Katori: I believe that there are fans who will follow me.

So, I think I could be of some help to boost the Paralympics. Japan should be changed after the 2020 Paralympics if those who engage in parasports increase through me, somehow. If the Paralympics generate tremendous excitement, I feel that a new Japan would begin from there.

Kanuma: If we have Katori-san to “do, watch and support” parasports, the society surrounding disabled people could be changed thanks to your influence. I hope such changes would be handed over to the next generation of para-athletes above and beyond the Tokyo Paralympic Games.

Katori: Japan could change through parasports. I will also keep trying as hard as Takakuwa-san and Kanuma-san.

(This article was compiled and edited by Issei Sakakibara).