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SPREADING HER WINGS / Nakanishi rediscovers passion for athletics, eyes gold at Rio Paralympics

The Yomiuri Shimbun

Maya Nakanishi makes a jump at the Japan championships on May 1.

By Wataru Hatae / Yomiuri Shimbun SportswriterA long uphill battle in her career forced two-time Paralympian Maya Nakanishi out of athletics for a spell, but after rediscovering her passion in her hometown of Oita Prefecture, she is back on track.

That is why the 31-year-old frequently expresses her attachment to Oita ahead of the Rio de Janeiro Games, her third Paralympics.

“I want to bring energy to the people in my hometown by winning a gold medal,” said Nakanishi, beaming.

Nakanishi had her right leg amputated from the knee down in 2006 when she was working for a painting company and a steel frame fell on her leg. She got involved in athletics as part of rehabilitation the next year, and it did not take long for her talent to garner attention.

She started to excel right away in the sprint events and the long jump, eventually making her Paralympic debut in 2008 at the Beijing Games. She finished fourth in the 200 meters and sixth in the 100.

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  • The Yomiuri Shimbun

    Maya Nakanishi makes a jump at the Japan championships on May 1.

  • The Yomiuri Shimbun

    Nakanishi reacts after a jump at a meet on April 9.

Seeking further development, Nakanishi took on a series of bold challenges over the following four years. She moved her training base to a facility in the United States in 2009. To raise funds for her athletic activities, she produced a partially nude calendar of herself, but her effort backfired as the unusual attempt received severe criticism from the para-sport world.

Despite the mental toll caused by the controversy, Nakanishi finished eighth in the long jump at the London Games. But the mental and physical fatigue had pushed her to the limit — she decided to retire soon after the Paralympics.

“I don’t think the things I did were wrong — but I had to push forward with my life,” she said.

Recharged in Oita

Nakanishi said she had no regrets, but it wasn’t long before she realized athletics were still running through her veins.

She returned home to the city of Yufu, Oita Prefecture, and the next year got back into the sport, practicing with able-bodied athletes of middle- and high-school age.

She found a volunteer coach, and as the number of such coaches and athletes in the sport increased, Nakanishi regained her passion to compete on the international stage.

That was the exact time Tokyo won the bid to host the 2020 Olympics and Paralympics. Upon hearing the news, something she witnessed at the London Paralympics immediately came to mind. The crowd at the stadium was repeatedly shouting the names of well-known athletes, not country names.

“If such an instance can take place at the 2020 Tokyo Games, it would be a trigger for change in the landscape of Japan’s Paralympic sports world, including the athletes themselves,” Nakanishi said.

The veteran athlete wishes to contribute from the standpoint of a competitor to the realization of a society in which an athlete would be evaluated regardless to the existence of disabilities.

Her wish has also fostered exchange of opinions with Oita locals. She visited Yufuin Primary School in Yufu City, a school at which she had given a lecture in the past, right after the city was affected by the Kumamoto Earthquake in April.

Speaking to children who used the school’s gym as an evacuation center, Nakanishi pledged her victory at the Japan championships in May, saying, “I know you are in a really tough situation — I promise to do all I can to win a title.”

Nakanishi kept her word. Not only did she win the long jump at the meet, she also broke her Asian record with a leap of 5.51 meters.

Yufuin Primary School Principal Fumie Kawano thanked Nakanishi, saying, “Our children were enlivened with such a big record.”

The unyielding Nakanishi aims to deliver a message to supporters from the other side of the planet with a big effort in the long jump.

“It is important to push hard no matter what environment you are in. That is the thing I learned after wearing my prosthetic leg,” she said.Speech

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