By Fumi Kobayashi and Yuri Teshima / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff WritersThe pair of Atsuko Yamada and Yu Nishiyama is a good example of how the paratriathlon combines a person with a physical impairment and one with none in a joint effort to conquer the grueling race. There seem to be no boundaries between athletes and those who support them in the race.
At a press conference in August, the 42-year-old Yamada expressed her joy at taking part in the upcoming Rio de Janeiro Paralympics.
“I always finished last on [school] sports days, so even my family members had never imagined I would make it [to Rio]. I still feel like I’m in a dream,” said Yamada, who will take part in the category for visually impaired athletes at Rio.
Yamada lost her eyesight in her left eye soon after she was born, and she is weak-sighted in her right eye. For a long time, she was attracted by the joy of sports despite the fact she was not good at them. She took part in the Tokyo Marathon with her brother five years ago, and that experience paved the way for her to start triathlons, in which athletes are required to complete three events in a race.
The paratriathlon will be debuting at the Rio de Janeiro Paralympics. Participants will compete in a 750-meter swim, a 20-kilometer cycling portion and a 5-kilometer run. The sport has classifications including those for wheelchair users and for visually impaired athletes.
Athletes in the visually impaired class are accompanied by a guide of the same sex. The guide is tethered to the athlete by a rope in the swimming and running portions, and sits in the front seat of a tandem bike during the cycling portion to serve as the eyes of the competitor.
Guides also need to have stamina to complete the race, and are required to tell the athletes the direction of the course and the remaining distance at the right moment. Therefore, people who have triathlon experience are considered suitable guides, but the problem is there are not so many female triathletes in Japan.
Last autumn, Nishiyama, who belonged to a triathlon club at a junior college at that time, served as Yamada’s guide through the introduction of her mentor. It was the 20-year-old’s first experience as a guide. She had never met Yamada before then.
At the beginning, the pair wobbled when starting to cycle and Nishiyama struggled to handle the weight of two people on the tandem bike while making a turn. However, the experience touched her in a new way.
“I felt emotions different from those I feel in my own races. It’s so gratifying to cross the finish line together,” she said.
After graduating from junior college this spring, Nishiyama moved to Hyogo Prefecture, where Yamada lives. While continuing to race in triathlons herself, Nishiyama worked hard on the teamwork aspect. Guides receive penalties for aggressively assisting athletes such as tugging them in the running portion. They are not in the spotlight, but Nishiyama is proud of serving as a guide.
“I want to show people that there is a wonderful sport in which supporters literally can pursue winning a medal together with an athlete,” she said.
Pursuing the same dream
Jumpei Kimura, who took part in swimming events in the past three Paralympics, will also compete in the paratriathlon at the Rio Games. The 31-year-old has physical impairments so he will have to get through the tough race using only the upper half of his body.
Masamitsu Tomikawa, 43, and Ayato Matsuyama, 48, both former national team members in the triathlon, help Kimura during the race as handlers.
When Kimura finishes the swimming portion, the two quickly remove the wet suit and transfer him to the cycle. When Kimura gets off the bike afterward, Tomikawa and Matsuyama lift him and place him in his wheelchair for the run.
All those actions are added to athletes’ time, so handlers are required to have quickness and efficiency in their actions as well as strength. During a warm-up event in late August for the Rio Paralympics, it took about 30 seconds for each equipment change.
“Top athletes in the world take much less time,” Tomikawa said.
Because Kimura usually practices with different coaches for each event, the three have few chances to practice together. However, there is no difference in their passion to pursue the ultimate goal.
“There are places to cut more time such as the time in taking off the wet suit. I want to cut every single second possible,” Tomikawa said.
“The Paralympics are also a dream stage for me. I want to support [Kimura] with the feeling of an athlete,” Matsuyama said.
Kimura expressed gratitude to Tomikawa, Matsuyama and other people who make this possible.