By Yoshinaga Azekawa / Yomiuri Shimbun SportswriterTomoki Sato set world records in the T52 category of the 400-meter and 1,500-meter wheelchair races at July’s Kanto Para Athletics Championships, achieving his goal in a season he had hoped would be an evolutionary step on his path to the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics.
“I definitely wanted to set world records before the upcoming Paralympics. I now have the confidence to believe I can grab gold at the Paralympics if I perform at my best,” the 29-year-old wheelchair athlete said.
Sato won two silver medals at his first Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. During the event, the story of his transition from a so-called hikikomori social recluse to a medal-winning athlete became a major topic of conversation.
He began using a wheelchair at 21 after developing myelitis, an inflammation of the spinal cord that disrupts nervous system responses. Wanting to escape reality, he started to lose himself in watching TV and surfing the internet at his parents’ home.
However, impressed by wheelchair athletes competing at the 2012 London Paralympics, he decided to choose a career as a Paralympic competitor. He improved rapidly in a short period, winning the 2014 Oita International Wheelchair Marathon (a half-marathon) and eventually punching his ticket to the big event in Rio.
While Sato had worked hard before the Rio Paralympics, he decided to adopt a new training philosophy for the four years leading up to the Tokyo Games, focused on meticulous planning and living every day without regret. His first goal was to defeat U.S. rival Raymond Martin, who defeated Sato in Rio de Janeiro.
“When looking at the video, Martin stopped [pushing] one or two strokes before the goal. I was shocked by the difference in power,” Sato said.
Martin is lighter than Sato and has greater speed out of the gate. To vie with him, Sato worked on maintaining his speed during the later stages of a race and focusing on stability during throughout a competition.
“I tried to relax just after the start of the race and speed up from the fifth stroke. That way I could eliminate unnecessary muscle tension and reach top speed more smoothly, conserving more strength for the latter half of the race,” Sato said.
At the world championships in July last year, Sato was able to open up a lead on Martin and defeat him in the two events. However, the fruits of his training were best displayed at the Kanto Para Athletics Championships.
No Japanese athlete won gold at the Rio de Janeiro Paralympics. Ahead of the Tokyo Paralympics, Sato keenly senses the public’s growing interest in Paralympic sports. He feels a strong need to achieve tangible results.
“My competitors will target me. I’d like to compete with the mentality of a silver medalist from the last Paralympics who’s aiming for the gold,” Sato said.