Team Japan’s preparations for Tokyo 2020 have placed more than 10 of their athletes in the top 10 of the world rankings across the categories contested at the Paralympic Games.
Among them are the highly experienced 33-year-old Ayako Suzuki and 19-year-old newbie Daiki Kajiwara.
Age Just a Number
Suzuki does not seem concerned she will be another year older when the Games take place in 2021.
“My advantage is my experience,” said the Standing Upper (SU5) women’s singles world No.2.
In women’s doubles Standing Lower/Upper (SL3-SU5), Suzuki partners Noriko Ito and Mio Hayashi.
She plans to make the most of the postponement.
“It gives me more time to improve my footwork and shot accuracy.”
Suzuki made her international debut in 2009 and held the women’s singles top spot for many years until the emergence of China’s 22-year-old rising star Yang Qiuxia.
The Paralympic qualifying year in 2019 saw repeated final battles between the two, with unpredictable results until almost the very end of each match.
“Yang is tenacious and it’s always fun to play her. She likes long rallies which I enjoy.
“I understand what kind of player I am. I’m the nervous type so I find it best to focus on myself. When I play, I think back to how I train and it helps me relax. I always work on getting the feel of how the match is going. I never give up on chasing shots all over the court and I send mine to the opposite place the opponent expects.”
Suzuki’s training regimen has not changed despite the lockdown.
“I live in an area which has very few Coronavirus cases. Currently I’m training in the gym, strengthening the muscles I need to overcome my shortcomings. Strength training helps me stay motivated.”
Suzuki started playing badminton with her family at the age of nine. The break from tournaments has allowed her to enjoy being home again.
“I now sleep too much. And I can’t travel which I love to do, so I spend time looking on the Internet for travel locations for when the world opens up again.”
There was a brief period when badminton could have lost Suzuki to another sport – horseback riding.
“I was in my 20s. I enjoyed it but just couldn’t get better so I went back to badminton. I’ll think about what’s next after I’m done playing.”
New Kid on the Block
In Kajiwara’s view, the longer preparation period has its pros and cons.
“I’m a college student this year so it gives me a chance to get accustomed to my new environment. For badminton, I can spend more time improving but it may be difficult to keep my motivation level up over the next year,” he said.
Currently sixth in the world in Wheelchair (WH2) men’s singles and third in WH1-WH2 men’s doubles with partner Hiroshi Murayama, Kajiwara started playing badminton in 2017.
A few years before that, at the age of 13, he lost the use of his legs in a traffic accident.
“I was on the way to baseball practice. My right leg had to be amputated and my left leg couldn’t move. I was told I would be bedridden for life. It was the most desperate time of my life. The fact I couldn’t play baseball anymore was the most painful.”
Family and friends are integral to his recovery and recent success.
“My family pays for my travels, takes me to practice and my mother cooks healthy food for me. I have a younger sister, who is lonely when I’m away but she supports me without complaining. After my accident, it was my baseball coach and school friends who helped me overcome my injuries.”
Learning to play badminton in a wheelchair proved not too difficult a challenge for this already athletic teenager.
“I played baseball before the accident, so I’m confident about my upper body strength. My chair-work on court is good but it’s still not enough against the top players.”
Despite his self-criticism, Kajiwara has held his own against some of the grand masters of the WH2 category, earning their praise.
“I look up to Kim Jungjun (Korea), Chan Ho Yuen (Hong Kong China) and Kim Kyung Hoon (Korea). I’m still new so in a match, I just try to challenge them. I don’t think about winning but it doesn’t mean I’m trying to lose.
“There’s so much I can learn from them and I want to defeat them someday. For now, I need to work on my own strengths and weaknesses. My goal is to win gold in Tokyo and someday, be a world champion.”