In the autumn, great cormorants, spot-billed ducks, and other aquatic birds flock to Saiko (“colorful lake”), a man-made reservoir in Saitama Prefecture, Japan. Well-known to local residents, Saiko is also a leisure and recreational area that is circled by a roughly five-kilometer bike path. One young man in particular can often be seen pedalling around the lake on his three-wheeled handcycle. He typically does four or five laps, but on some days he will do as many as ten, a look of stern concentration always etched on his face.
Junpei Kimura is 30 years old. He has already won or finished on the podium at many parasports competitions, including the Japan Para Championships and the Asia Para Games. Having now competed in three successive Paralympics, Kimura is a standout among Japanese para-swimmers, but he recently began competing in para-triathlons as well, and many in Japan are expecting him to excel in that sport too.
Triathlons consist of three sequential endurance disciplines, a swim, a bike ride, and a long-distance run. Due to the extreme physical demands of these competitions, the triathlon is sometimes referred to as the “ultimate sport.” Para-triathons have many rules so that people with different kinds of impairments can compete together fairly and safely. Kimura competes in the PT1 category for athletes with mobility impairments, including muscle power, limb deficiency, and so on. He rides a handcycle for the bike discipline and a competition wheelchair for the run.
Despite being born without the use of his legs, as a child Kimura attended a regular swimming school, where he actually outclassed other, able-bodied swimmers. In his second year of high school he competed at his first para-swimming meet, and it wasn't long before he was crowned national champion. For a while Kimura was full of confidence, but that was dashed the following year at an international competition, when he witnessed able-bodied members of his own club get beaten by a competitor with no arms. It was a moment that changed Kimura's life.
Today Kimura is taking on the world's best in both para-swimming events and para-triathlons. “It's difficult, because twice the events requires twice the mental focus,” he says. In spite of his words though, it is clear from Kimura's expression that he feels a great sense of achievement. To control his handcycle at speeds of up to 60 kilometers an hour, Kimura must effectively synchronize the movement of his arms and torso, listening carefully to each part of his body and making certain that he doesn't overstress anything. Getting the best results possible demands constant trial and error.
At times, Kimura's body will scream out from the pain and fatigue, but those screams are quieted by the sheer challenge of his sports and the enjoyment he gets from competing. “The more I do these sports, the more amazing people I meet,” he says, his words revealing his gratitude and admiration for all those who have helped him along the way. Gone is the cocky young man who captured his first national title as a teenager. Today Kimura is much more modest, and he is quick to acknowledge other top cyclists and runners who have given him valuable advice, the mechanics who have worked so hard to keep his equipment in good running order, and the corporations and universities that have spared no efforts in supporting his training.
“Being a successful swimmer is all about staying focused and shielding out distractions, but triathlons are different,” says Kimura. “The spectators along the roadside can make a big difference, and it's surprising how how much of a boost you can get from even a single shout of encouragement.”
While para-triathlons test the physical limits of Kimura and his fellow competitors, they also demonstrate the collective strengths of those who continue to support these fine athletes.
The“Mitsubishi Corporation 2015 IWRF Asia-Oceania Championship” in wheelchair rugby was held at Chiba Port Arena from October 29 to November 1, with Japan emerging as champions. MC, which has been working hard to promote and raise awareness of parasports, sponsored the event and sent staff volunteers to act as guides and help clear away the equipment. The three-day competition was enjoyed by enthusiastic crowds.
This article appeared in Asahi Shimbun's “GLOBE” feature of November 15, 2015.