By Shizuka Goto / Yomiuri Shimbun SportswriterVeteran wheelchair para-athlete Naoki Yasu is shifting gears in a big way, moving off the basketball court and picking up a sword as he takes aim at the 2020 Tokyo Paralympic Games.
Yasu, a member of Japan’s national basketball team at the 2004 Athens Paralympics, competed in fencing at the Asian Para Games in Jakarta in October.
The 41-year-old developed an intractable disease in his second year of junior high school, and became unable to move his hip joints after an operation went wrong.
He began playing wheelchair basketball during his first year at high school, and eventually turned pro in a European league featuring the world’s best.
Yasu retired from basketball, to which he had dedicated much of his life, four years ago. By then a veteran, he realized it was difficult to compete with the stream of new young athletes for a spot on the national team.
Throughout the year prior to his retirement, Yasu randomly tried his hand at other sports and ultimately chose fencing. The basketball skills he developed — moving around a court and controlling his wheelchair — don’t give him an advantage in fencing, as the wheelchair is in a stationary position during bouts.
Those in his inner circle him advised against fencing, but Yasu had an irresistible attraction to the sport, in which split-second decisions determine the winner.
“I can’t work hard in a sport just because I have an advantage [based on my experience in basketball]. I wanted to choose something that would challenge me the most,” he said.
Yasu’s muscle size was an advantage in basketball but a hindrance in fencing. Initially he could barely practice lunging, so he went on a diet and dropped about 12 kilograms.
Since last year, he has trained with Madoka Nagara (formerly Hisagae), a former member of the women’s national team.
He took third place in men’s sabre at the World Cup in April.
Said Nagara: “Yasu has shown the ability to learn things quickly as a top athlete, and his skills can improve further.”