By Hiromu Namiki / Japan News Staff WriterIt might be difficult for spectators to pick up on the contributions of Kotaro Kishi on the wheelchair rugby court because flash plays aren’t a feature of the 47-year-old’s game.
Usually a player with the severest disability and the most dust on his birth certificate finds it difficult to excel on the court against both the speed and power of opponents. However, there is a reason why this veteran has been chosen for the Japan national team for nine years, helping the squad grab the bronze medal at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Paralympics.
Kishi is an expert in simple techniques that hinder opponents from moving freely, and he lays the groundwork for smooth performances by his teammates.
Kishi’s main role on both sides of the court is to block opponents. On the offensive side, he creates openings through which the team’s elite players can score, and on the defensive end, he contains the opponent’s key players to cause disruption.
“I’m the ‘shield’ for my team,” Kishi, who belongs to the Saitama-based club Axe, said during a recent interview with The Japan News.
“I feel rewarded when teammates operate smoothly and don’t get pressured by opponents.”
High production for ‘low-pointer’
In this sport, in which “tackling” is performed by players ramming into each other in wheelchairs, participants are placed in seven categories ranging from class 0.5 to class 3.5 — the lower-level points indicating less functional ability.
Games take place with four players on each side, with the combined points of the four not to exceed eight.
Forming a team with players of varying categories is a key in the sport.
Players at the bottom end of the classifications — usually called low-pointers — use a wheelchair that has a long front bumper designed to hook and hold opponents, while players in higher point categories have shorter, round wheelchairs that allow higher speed and mobility.
Kishi, who has no trunk function and cannot lift his arms above his shoulders, is a low-pointer at 0.5, meaning most of his time on court comes against opponents who are more mobile and stronger than he is. Sometimes he faces bulky players who are 3.0s and 3.5s — the high-pointers.
“It makes me feel like I’m a 50cc motorcycle facing a dump truck,” Kishi quipped.
Finding joy in the sport
Kishi incurred his disability in 1995 during his fourth year as a university student. He was riding his bike and suffered a broken neck when he was involved in a traffic accident.
After several years of rehabilitation, Kishi thought about picking up a sport as a way to stay fit, and one day he casually went to see wheelchair rugby.
He was shocked at what he saw — players colliding into each other in their wheelchairs.
“My reaction was, ‘What the heck is this sport?’ But it attracted me. I also got interested in sports-oriented wheelchairs,” said Kishi, who found himself captivated by the sport.
“It was fun to stop players who can move around better than I can.”
Kishi was a member of the photography club while in high school and university, only playing sports as recreation.
So his ambitions were not high at the outset — at that time, he never thought he would one day be a national team player.
But as he saw his teammates get the call for the national team, he developed a strong desire to play at a higher level.
After working hard for more than 10 years, he finally earned a selection to the national team in 2009. He was nearly 40.
On the court, Kishi relishes the role of blocking players of higher mobility.
“If a 0.5-player like me contains a 3.5-point player, that puts a huge burden on the opponent’s other players,” Kishi said.
One of his favorite techniques is to neutralize the opponent by holding the player’s wheel between his own wheel and bumper. The player tries to escape, but Kishi deftly maneuvers his wheelchair back and forth, not allowing his opponent to get away, a technique players call the “spiderweb” move.
“Kishi is a master of techniques that put opponents in difficult situations,” said Masayuki Haga, Kishi’s teammate with Axe and the national team.
“He has the excellent ability to read the flow of the game and always puts himself in a good position.”
Said a player from another team: “I don’t want to play in Kishi’s vicinity.”
Kishi takes a lot of pride in being a role player.
“Even if a team has excellent high-pointers, the burden can be huge if the others do not play well,” Kishi said. “If high-pointers can play smoothly, their motivation will be higher and their performance will improve.
“If they don’t have as much of a burden, they can play with less fatigue and maintain a high level of play throughout a tournament.”
But, honestly speaking, everyone dreams of being the player who drives past opponents with speed and racks up the points, right?
“Actually, I never have,” Kishi said. “I’m satisfied with my role.
“As I have a high degree of disability, I’m helped a lot by people in my everyday life,” Kishi said. “On the court, I can be a help to others — that’s a thrill for me.”
Building toward Tokyo
At the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Games, Kishi and his teammates brought Japan its first Paralympic medal in the sport.
This past August, Japan beat Rio champion Australia in the final at the world championships to win the country’s first world title. Hopes are high for Japan at the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics.
Kishi, however, remains on an even keel.
“Actually, I’m not that focused on medals,” Kishi said. “I want to concentrate on accomplishing my job on the court.”
But that does not mean that Kishi is uninterested in the Tokyo Paralympics. He said the atmosphere he felt at two past Paralympics — at Rio and at the 2012 London Games — were really special.
He is looking forward to performing at the Tokyo Games in front of a huge home crowd. “In London and Rio, I couldn’t hear my teammates speak because of the deafening cheers of the crowd,” Kishi said.
“I wonder what the atmosphere of the Tokyo Games will be like. It will be an excellent opportunity to raise the profile of wheelchair rugby in Japan.”
Kishi also believes in the power of his sport.
“If there are [disabled] people who are hesitant to get out of their homes, I hope our performance gets them interested in the sport and can provide an opportunity to motivate them to be more outgoing,” Kishi said.Speech