Every day there are those who strive to move forward: With a Paralympic year finally upon us, KIMURA Keiichi looks ahead to a historic summer of sport on home soil.
It's a blessing to be able to aim for the Paralympics ― that's the positive attitude of para-swimmer KIMURA Keiichi, and it hasn't changed despite the Tokyo 2020 Games having been postponed for a year.
At the Rio 2016 Games, Kimura won four medals, the most of any Japanese swimmer. With the aim of winning nothing but gold in Tokyo, he has been training in the United States.
With the skills he developed leading up to Rio as well as physical strength and mental growth, the 30-year-old blind swimmer will head to his fourth Paralympic Games with confidence.
Without training so severely that it breaks you down to your heart, the gold medal could not have been won
Following the spread of the coronavirus pandemic, Kimura returned from the United States in mid-March 2020. Despite not having his coach by his side at this time, he continues to train hard in Tokyo. With the support and understanding of his company, he says he is in a blessed environment heading towards the Tokyo 2020 Games.
“I think this is happiness. I can do what I like, have support, recognition and praise. With the understanding of my company, I am able to train and aim for the Paralympics. I think this is a luxury.”
Kimura won two medals at London 2012 (one silver, one bronze), and for the next four years studied under his coach NOGUCHI Tomohiro - who has also trained many other Olympic athletes - with the sole aim of winning a gold medal at the Rio 2016 Games.
The first step was to achieve an athlete's body. The amount and sheer level of training was incomparable to anything he had done before. Kimura endured difficult training to the point he felt his body would be broken down even to his heart.
“The training leading up to Rio was extremely tough. For Olympic athletes, it’s the kind of training they’d do when they’re kids, but I didn’t, and yet before I knew it, I had become a medallist [at the London 2012 Games].”
However, once again the result was silver and bronze (two silver, two bronze). Kimura was unable to win the gold medal. Despite being commended as a “para-ace”, the feeling that he couldn’t do anything better affected his resolve, and he didn’t immediately feel ready to pursue the Tokyo 2020 Games.
Aiming for Tokyo 2020 in a new environment
It was the end of 2017 when Kimura solidified his feelings about the Tokyo 2020 Games and decided to train in the United States.
Kimura contacted his long-time rival and friend, Bradley Snyder, who won the Rio 2016 Games triple crown, who then introduced him to Coach Brian Leffler, who has trained many gold medallists.
“After Rio, I knew somewhere in my heart that I would do it [again], that I wanted to do it. The fact that the Paralympics would be held in Tokyo was also a big deciding factor. But, what exactly does aiming for it mean? I thought it would be no good if I didn’t put myself in an environment where I could work harder than before. So, I thought, why don’t I change the entire environment itself? That way, I would be able to work harder. I wanted to change the situation where I felt suffocated.
“In some way, I felt like I was running away.”
Kimura went to visit the U.S. in February 2018 and moved to Baltimore the following April. He left Tokyo, a city he had lived in and known for many years, for a new place. While some of the people around him were opposed to the idea, he followed his heart in order to pursue his desire to make it to Tokyo 2020. He could not speak English and had no-one to rely on. Despite this, the fact that he took the plunge into an unknown world helped him grow into the person he is now.
“People related to para-sports might know me to a certain degree, but the students in Baltimore where I trained were probably thinking ‘Who is this guy?’. He’s Japanese, he can’t speak [English], he can’t see [he laughs]. I couldn't understand my coach's instructions at first, so I had to ask him over and over again. But I went to a language school, and little by little, I began to understand the language and didn’t have trouble anymore. I didn’t have any specific troubles in my everyday life either. Everyone was much nicer than I expected.
After overcoming necessary losses, “Mind, Body, and Spirit” came together
In the pool, many other para-athletes and able-bodied athletes practice together. The environment was a striking contrast to the one-on-one training with his coach leading up to Rio 2016.
What had once been a passive practice became a "do-it-yourself" practice. Kimura’s feelings towards swimming had also come to change.
“Swimming became fun. The atmosphere in the pool was cheerful and everyone seemed to be having fun. The coaches created an atmosphere where the swimmers could encourage and push themselves on their own. There was a mood among the athletes that they were willing to take on the tough stuff. Me too, I like to train to win as well. I think that's why I was able to practice in a really good way that suited me.”
Kimura’s training went well and his times improved. He’s also been able to show consistent stamina. At the 2019 World Championships, he won his speciality, the 100m butterfly and showed that he is still capable of winning the elusive gold medal at Tokyo 2020.
“My swimming hasn’t changed. My body hasn’t really changed either. However, my mind has changed. Before Rio, I was a bit immature in my way of thinking. No matter how much I practised, I didn’t have confidence.
“Now, even though there’s no proof behind it, before I start I’ve become able to think: ‘I’ll be ok’. When things don’t go the way I planned, when things don’t come out right, even then somehow I’m able to keep going. I felt like I was working hard, and I think that’s what was able to give me confidence.”
Through his love for swimming, Kimura became a medallist at London 2012. He became an athlete by training his body and honing his skills through four years of rigorous training for the Rio 2016 Games. In the U.S., the mental aspect that he was lacking had improved, and over the course of this period, his mind, body and spirit aligned.
The gold medal is now clearly on the horizon.
“During the four years leading up to Rio, I had built my centre. Through practising, I've come to understand my own body. Thanks to this, I know what is and isn’t necessary in terms of training and diet. I was able to train at the right time and go [to the U.S.] at the right time. If it hadn't been for the strict training under coach Noguchi, I wouldn't have been able to grow in America. It was all good timing.
“I've come to believe that my loss in Rio was necessary.”
Unsurprised at the postponement and aiming for gold with unchanging confidence
For Kimura, because his mind had been trained, he was not fazed by the one-year postponement. He returned to Tokyo under the instructions to “return while you can” and heard of the postponement a few days later. While the state of emergency was declared, he returned to his parents' home in Shiga Prefecture. He didn’t swim for one and a half months, but he could smile and say that it was OK to take a little break. Afterwards, he returned to Tokyo.
“Now, my coach in Baltimore emails me every day with training schedules, and we talk on the phone once a week. I wasn’t surprised by the postponement. I think I would have been more confident if the Tokyo 2020 Games had been held as scheduled, but I can still be confident a year from now. However, I am a little disappointed that I won't be able to go back to the U.S., which I had planned to do. I’ve also forgotten how to speak English,” he laughs.
Kimura currently has six medals to his name. As one of the more experienced athletes for Japan, everyone around him is expecting him to win gold at Tokyo 2020. But although he feels the pressure, he remains calm and collected.
“When I win, the person happiest is myself, and when I lose, the person most disappointed is also myself. My expectations are high, so I put a lot of pressure on myself.
“I'm proud to be a part of the Tokyo 2020 Games in my home country, and I'm lucky to be able to participate as an athlete. I want to improve my performance so that people can witness how much one could swim without being able to see.”
At the age of 30, these will be Kimura’s fourth Paralympic Games. He is confident that he will be able to win the gold medal as he continues to swim with joy and strength.
I feel that I want to continue competing for as long as I can, and I am glad that I can prepare for the Olympics, knowing that I’m already qualified.