Teen boccia player sets sight on Paralympic medal

By Masakazu Shimizu / Yomiuri Shimbun Sportswriter A rising star with a big ambition has emerged in the world of boccia.

“My biggest goal is to make the [2020] Tokyo Paralympics. I want to win a medal,” said 16-year-old Shun Esaki, who has recently made a national team debut.

With a name that means “ball” in Italian, boccia is a sport invented in Europe for those with severe cerebral palsy or impaired limb function. The match begins with the throwing of a white target ball, toward which each team then competes by throwing six other balls as close as possible.

Japan won the silver medal in a team event at the Rio de Janeiro Paralympics in 2016.

Esaki took part as a national team member in a team event at the Japan Para Championships in Tokyo on Nov. 18 and 19. His pair faced a pair of Thai athletes in the BC4 class, for those with severe locomotor dysfunction. Although the Japan pair lost two games to the pair from one of the major boccia powers, the audience was excited by his repeated precise shots to narrow the gaps between balls.

Esaki, a native of Kasugai, Aichi Prefecture, has been using a wheelchair since he was in the upper grades of elementary school due to muscular dystrophy, an intractable disease.

The athlete first learned about boccia in his first year of a junior high school course at a special-needs school.

“My first impression with the sport was, ‘What on earth is this?’” Esaki recalled. “But after participating in workshops and regional competitions, I realized it was fun.”

Once he became interested in it, he quickly developed his skills.

For his excellent performance in the “Boccia Koshien,” a nationwide boccia tournament for special-needs school students in July 2017, he was selected as a member of the national team. Esaki, who now is in his second year of a high school course, is a member of the Aichi Boccia Association.

Currently, many of the main players of the national teams are veterans. Thus, the team faces the challenge of generational change.

Shunji Kawai, who was the coach of the Japan team that won the silver medal at the Rio Paralympics in 2016, pays particular attention to Esaki, thinking that he will someday become the pillar of the next-generation players.

“He has achieved solid results. He is a promising player,” Kawai said.

As more people recognize the sport, he is expected to play even better in the 2020 Tokyo Games.

With its intellectual elements, the ball sport bears a resemblance to chess. Therefore, Esaki often studies tactics for the sport with his father.

The youthful player, who enjoys watching the video-sharing site YouTube, said: “The appeal of boccia is the fact that you don’t know which [side] will win until the last moment. I want to refine my tactics to the best I can, and show good performance in the Tokyo Games.”Speech

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