By Hiromu Namiki / Japan News Staff WriterWakako Tsuchida isn’t dwelling on past successes. Instead the 44-year-old wheelchair athlete, who is the first Japanese athlete to win gold at both the Winter and Summer Paralympics, is seeking to build on her accomplishments.
Though she has won multiple titles in the marathon, long-distance races and ice sledge speed skating, she now has her sights on a new goal: winning a gold medal in the triathlon at the 2020 Tokyo Games.
“I’m driven by the thrill of taking on new challenges and discovering my hidden potential,” Tsuchida said in a recent interview with The Japan News. “I don’t think I’ve achieved a satisfying result yet.”
In January of last year, Tsuchida announced that she would fully devote herself to the paratriathlon. In the 2018 season, she won two women’s wheelchair events at the ITU World Paratriathlon Series and finished second in the series’ Grand Final competition in September.
“I was assured by my results and performance,” Tsuchida said.
If she participates in next year’s Tokyo Games, it will be her eighth Paralympics and second Games on home soil. She previously took part in the 1998 Nagano Games, where she won four medals in ice sledge speed racing — in which participants ride a sledge and move forward with two poles — including gold in the 1,000-meter and 1,500-meter events.
At Nagano, Tsuchida desperately sought to prove herself and simply concentrated on what she could do. “I doubt that I understood the significance of the Paralympics being held in Japan,” Tsuchida recalled.
She now regards the Tokyo Games as a golden opportunity to showcase the attractiveness of para-sports and athletes. “I get excited imagining myself competing in the Tokyo Games,” she said. “I’m looking forward to getting results this year to gain momentum for 2020 ... I want to win the brightest medal at the Tokyo Games.”
Asthma forced changes
Three sections comprise the para-triathlon: a 750-meter swim, 20-kilometer bike ride and 5-kilometer run. Athletes in wheelchairs ride a handbike during the bike section.
Tsuchida has an impressive list of accomplishments in the long-distance and marathon races, winning gold in the 5,000 meters and silver in the marathon at the Athens Games. She also won nine consecutive titles at the Tokyo Marathon through 2016.
Her shift to triathlon was somewhat unexpected.
After the 2016 Rio de Janaeiro Games, where she finished fourth in the marathon, Tsuchida participated in the New York City Marathon in November that year. However, she had a heavy cough during the race and had to retire. After returning to Japan, she was diagnosed with exercise-induced asthma.
“I was distressed for a while, thinking that I might have to quit doing sports,” Tsuchida recalled.
However, she fought back her pessimism and began swimming to help cope with her illness.
Swimming proved to be an effective remedy, and she eventually went off her medication.
This sparked a new idea. Tsuchida was an accomplished marathon runner and had experience riding handbikes as part of her training regimen. As she had also taken up swimming, she thought, “Hey, might I be able to compete in triathlons?”
Though she initially felt that the hurdles were too high, her efforts to conquer asthma through swimming pushed her to take on the event. She was also motivated by a desire to return to competition.
Tsuchida made her triathlon debut in 2017. She won her first two events, including the Yokohama ITU World Paratriathlon Series, which boosted her confidence as a newcomer to the sport.
However, not everything went smoothly. Ironically, Tsuchida struggled most in the swimming portion of the event. Swimming in triathlons does not take place in pools, but rather in oceans and other open bodies of water, where conditions such as the temperature, wind and waves differ in each race.
The temperature was particularly low at the 2017 series Grand Final in Rotterdam in September. Tsuchida entered the water but was unable to start swimming as she developed breathing difficulties.
“I experienced the difficulty and harshness of triathlons,” she said of the incident.
Though distressing, the setback reignited her fighting spirit. Tsuchida competed in both the marathon and triathlon in 2017, but decided to completely switch to triathlons from 2018.
She worked hard to improve her swimming last season, training at beaches in Hayama, Kanagawa Prefecture, and Futtsu, Chiba Prefecture, among other locations, where she practiced for two to three hours twice a week to adapt to ocean conditions.
Importance of team
Tsuchida has been supported by many people throughout her career, but preparation for triathlons requires an even greater support network as they are comprised of three events.
For her races, she relies on a team of people who support her, including a mechanic who maintains her equipment and a handler who helps her transition between races, such as by removing her wetsuit or helping her change vehicles. Transitions are crucial, as the time devoted to such phases is also included in the final time.
She is also supported by her husband Keiju Takahashi, who serves as her coach, and their son, who will begin junior high school in April.
Tsuchida said she learned much from raising her son, as child-rearing involves “unexpected complications.” However, such experiences have helped her concentrate and maximize the effect of her training during short periods. She has also enhanced her ability to control her mentality.
Public recognition of para-sports and athletes’ performances have drastically improved in the 25 years since Tsuchida made her Paralympic debut at the 1994 Lillehammer Games.
“Understanding of both para-sports and disabilities will not progress without deeper public exposure,” she said, expressing her hope that the Tokyo Games will further boost conditions for disabled athletes. “We hope our performances lead to better understanding of disabilities.”Speech