"Sledge hockey in Japan has hit rock bottom," laments Satoru Sudo, captain of the Japanese national team. At last year's IPC World Championship, Japan finished dead last among the eight competing nations, a result that dropped it into the B Pool for next season. The world's top nations compete in the A Pool.
The high point in Japanese sledge hockey occurred several years ago at an international competition in Vancouver, Canada. Japan advanced to the semis, after miraculously upsetting the powerful host nation in their quarterfinal. Japan managed to steal that win largely because of the inspired play of its captain. Time and time again, Sudo sacrificed his body to block Canadian shots.
Sometimes called "a martial art on ice," sledge hockey is an extremely physical game. Thunderous body contact resulting in warped and damaged sledges is just an expected part of the action. When Sudo began playing 20 years ago, he hoped that sledge hockey would be a good way to get some "light exercise." Now a veteran of the sport, he knows only too well how naive that was. But despite the physical toll it inflicts on the players, sledge hockey is also a battle of wits and strategy, with teams employing organized defenses to negate their opponents' speed. Experienced players talk about "becoming one with their equipment (sticks and sledges)" and relishing in the challenge of sharpening their moves and shooting skills. The more Sudo familiarized himself with the game, the more it absorbed him. He now wonders where he'd be if he hadn't developed such a passion for it.
When he was just 20 years old, Sudo lost both of his legs in an accident at work. Feeling that he had been robbed of a future, he became depressed and unsure about what he could do with his life. But when he found sledge hockey, he felt reborn. The sport has given him new friends whom he has competed with all over the world. And the results have been gratifying. "I've been very lucky," he says. "Sledge hockey has given me experiences that so many others will never have the chance to enjoy."
If Sudo's life were a movie, it probably would have ended with that remarkable victory over Canada - a fitting conclusion to an inspiring story. But endings like that are for fairy tales, and Sudo knows that real life is much tougher. So at 45 years old, he's still going strong, hitting the ice with his teammates and spurring them on with pep talks and his own gutsy play. While the world's best sledge-hockey teams are filled with players in their teens and 20s, the average age of Japan's roster is 38; and unlike Western nations, which can regularly compete against one another, Japan has very few opportunities to improve. Japan will have to overcome many hurdles if it hopes to lift itself from its current "rock bottom" position, but for Sudo and his mates, that's all the more reason not to give up.
In Sudo's time of need, it was sledge hockey that saved him. Now he feels it is his turn to save sledge hockey in Japan, so don't expect him to be leaving the rink anytime soon. "It may seem silly to still be playing at this age, but I can't quit now," he says. "Winning is great, but win or lose, this game has given me everything, and I still have so much to give back. That will be the best reward of all."
This article appeared in Asahi Shimbun's “GLOBE” feature of January 17, 2016.