A discarded newspaper probably changed Keiichi Sato's life. He was 25 years old, employed by a printing company, and just about to graduate from part-time high school, when one day at work he noticed the paper, likely left behind by a colleague. What caught his eye in particular, was a headline about cross-country skiing for people with impairments.
"At the time, I had been keeping a list of future goals," recalls Sato. "After reading the article, I added the words 'cross-country skiing' to the list. It was kind of a crazy thing to do, because I had never skied before in my life" (laughs).
While Sato finds the impulsiveness of that moment humorous, it clearly affected him, because not long after, he quit his job at the printing company and went to work in Canada for a year. Determined to make a new start, he began working at a ski resort and devoting whatever time he could to learning how to ski.
Cross-country ski courses generally consist of three sections of equal distance, a downhill section, a flat section, and an uphill section. Some of the steeper, uphill slopes can be almost cliff-like, yet the competitors must still ascend with their boots properly attached to their skis. While it lacks the speed of its flashier alpine cousin, cross-country skiing requires tremendous stamina and explosiveness. The long, gruelling races can place a heavy toll on the athletes.
Sato was born without a left hand. He propels himself forward with one pole, a feeling that he likens to doing one-armed pushups. Skiers like Sato need to bulk up their power-generating arms and use their core strength to maintain good balance. Considering the great stress the skiers place on their muscles throughout a race, the winner is usually the one who maintains complete mental focus from start to finish.
To be successful in a race, cross-country skiers must battle against their fatigue, their thoughts, and their loneliness. But Sato has been fighting those battles his entire life. Separated from his parents as a young boy, he was raised in an orphanage and has never felt the warmth of family.
"But once I started skiing, I met so many wonderful people," he says. "The other skiers and coaches have been so helpful, and whenever I feel like I can't continue, I'm introduced to new people and businesses who want to give me their support. When I think about how my life has gone, it feels like one miracle after another."
Since reading that newspaper article ten years ago, Sato has competed in two Paralympics and many other international competitions, including IPC World Cup events. This year he plans to try his luck in the triathlon. Retirement is still several years away, but he is already thinking about devoting the rest of his career to supporting other athletes.
"Up to now, I've been able to accomplish my goals, but I still have many left," he says. "I've really had a blessed life, and if I could chose to live again, I'd be the very same person."
Sato cuts a lonely figure, silently gliding through the snow. But watching him reminds us of what we are all capable of, as long as we have to courage to try.
This article appeared in Asahi Shimbun's “GLOBE” feature of December 20, 2015.