By Junzo Ono / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff Writer RIO DE JANEIRO — Her eighth-place finish in last week’s final of the women’s canoe sprint at the Rio de Janeiro Paralympics showed teenager Monika Seryu just how high the wall remains between her and the elite competitors.
It has also led her to become more determined to show the world how much she can improve in preparation for her hometown Tokyo Paralympics in four years.
The 18-year-old from Koto Ward, Tokyo, currently a freshman at the University of Tsukuba, competes in the KL1 category, for athletes with no or very limited trunk function and no leg function, and typically need a special seat with a high backrest in the kayak. Canoeing was making its Paralympic debut in Rio.
In the final, Seryu was urged on by supporters from Tokyo who chanted her name. She got off to a good start and stayed close to the race favorites. But after the halfway point, she could not keep pace and fell increasingly farther behind.
When Seryu was a first-year high school student, she took a bad fall during a gym class and landed heavily on her head and back, knocking her unconscious. She awoke two weeks later only able to minutely move her legs. She has since used a wheelchair to get around.
Before the accident, Seryu was a vivacious girl with an ever-present smile. But immediately after the accident, she fell into a deep despair that greatly concerned her mother Kinuko. “I worried she might try to do something unthinkable,” Kinuko recalled. “So I secretly hid the knives in the house.”
Even when she could leave the house in the wheelchair, it was not a pleasant experience. Many times passengers on crowded trains viewed her as an annoyance and made her feel self-conscious.
Seryu was able to regain a positive outlook thanks to canoeing, which she had taken up during her middle school years. Those around her recommended she try the sport again, which she did whole-heartedly as a second-year high schooler. “I could move along the water even with my disability,” she noticed.
It didn’t take long for her to surpass her personal bests from her middle school days. As a result of a weight-training regimen she adopted from the end of last year, she added four centimeters to her arm circumference and developed a more-powerful paddling technique.
In addition to support from local companies, Seryu is helped by the Koto Ward government, which started a support project this fiscal year with the aim of developing Paralympians.
“My life has made a complete 180-degree turn that I never could have imagined when the accident happened,” she said. “With the support of many people, I can now stand on this stage.”
More than two years have passed since she resumed the sport. At the world championships in Germany in May, she earned a spot on the Japan team to Rio.
She went into the final at Rio thinking, “I have nothing to lose.” Unable to win a medal, she expressed mixed feelings about her performance. “I was happy to be able to compete in the final, but there is also a feeling of disappointment.”