The Japanese athlete talks about why she is hooked on Para sports and what tactics she will use to win in the Paralympic Games
Having started playing Para badminton just over three years ago, SATOMI Sarina is already a world champion and a gold medal favourite at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games, where Para badminton will make its official Paralympic debut. Let’s take a look at her journey to become a Para badminton athlete.
Hitting shuttles in wheelchair
“This is such a difficult sport!” Satomi thought when she first tried Para badminton.
“At first, the coach hit the shuttle around me within my reach, so I could just about hit it back, but then he said, ‘Let’s make it a bit more difficult,’ and started making me move from front to back and vice versa, and the shots were totally impossible to return,” she recalls, laughing.
In May 2016, when Satomi was in her third year at high school, she got involved in a car accident. She lost the ability to move her legs and spent nine months in the hospital recuperating. When she came back home, she started using a wheelchair. A year after the accident, her father suggested that she should go and check out a wheelchair badminton club in her local prefecture, Chiba, where eventually she had her first encounter with Para badminton.
Satomi had already been playing badminton at junior high school - and at the club, seeing other people playing wheelchair badminton with ease, she thought she could play too, only to find that the sport was outrageously difficult.
“The players, were hitting the shuttle by using their hands only, then moving the wheelchair, hitting and moving, over and over again. I couldn’t help but wonder how on earth they managed to do this,” Satomi says.
Yet, after playing the sport for a little over two years, she became the queen of Para badminton, topping the world rankings in both singles and doubles (as of October 2020), and is a gold medal favourite at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games. This exemplifies the infinite potential of Para sports.
An athlete’s mindset
In the beginning, Satomi was reluctant to play Para badminton and only played it as a hobby, practising in her own way.
However, when she started taking part in tournaments, her competitiveness was ignited. One year into the sport, she was selected to play at her first international competition in Thailand in July 2018 as an athlete certified by the Japan Para-Badminton Federation. This made her acknowledge herself as an “athlete.”
After it has been decided that she would play in the doubles event, and was paired up with YAMAZAKI Yuma (WH2), a pioneer in Para badminton who was 10 years older than her, Satomi said:
“Yamazaki was eyeing the Paralympic Games, so, as her doubles partner, I considered switching my mindset to that of an athlete’s and work hard towards the same objective too."
Pair’s strength in doubles - the fun part
Satomi’s first doubles event at the Thailand Para-Badminton International resulted in a silver medal, which spurred her passion for the doubles. She says that the fun part of playing in the doubles is voicing encouragement to each other and helping each other in rotations. For Satomi, when all the pieces fit together perfectly like a jigsaw puzzle, it’s truly exhilarating.
Since securing the championship in the singles event, Satomi has gained self-confidence and is now able to share her views openly with her doubles partner Yamazaki after having built a close relationship with her.
Together, the highlight of their play is their rotation techniques. The Satomi/Yamazaki pair has been practising this tactic as one of their strategies to defeat their biggest rival, the Chinese pair, to whom they have lost at the Asian Para Games and succumbed to third place.
In the wheelchair badminton doubles, a side-by-side formation is commonly used, where each player is positioned on either the left or right side to cover the court accordingly. However, the Satomi/Yamazaki pair takes a different approach.
“We rotate our positions rapidly on many occasions, although it’s rare to see wheelchair badminton players do this. We would shift to symmetrical and other formations to mutually cover our weak areas, for example. I think viewers will be impressed to see us spinning around on the court,” Satomi explains.
An example of their rotation tactic was seen at the Japan Para-Badminton International 2019 final in November 2019. When they had their backs against the wall, trailing 4‒14 in the final game, the pair switched to their rotation tactic and clinched a dramatic upset victory.
Decision to take up singles
Initially, Satomi considered the doubles to be her main battlefield, rather than the singles, but later on changed her mind: “In the doubles, the player with the greater impairment is targeted by the opponents, which means that if I become a good and strong player, we [as a pair] can win. (Satomi is classified as WH1, a class for players with severe impairment.] When I realised this, I started thinking that I should also compete in the singles,” Satomi stated.
The wheelchair badminton singles event is played on half of the court, with shuttles falling between the net and the service line considered out of bounds. Badminton is a psychological game of tactics. However, as wheelchair badminton is fought on a smaller court, the focus is placed more on how to force opponents to move back and forth repeatedly.
The long rallies are also one of the highlights of Para badminton. With the net set at the same height as in able-bodied badminton, viewers get the impression that able-bodied players are playing badminton with a volleyball net. Players lean backwards as far they possibly can in their wheelchair seat to perform smashes, which is a very challenging skill. They occasionally tilt their body sideways and turn the wheels backwards to roll back. Such dexterous chair work is also something that enthralls spectators.
“Sometimes I predetermine what tactics to adopt beforehand, and at other times, I just play instinctively. During long rallies, there are moments when I realise that I’m playing tactics with the opponent, which makes me truly immerse myself in the joy of playing badminton," she says.
"Of course, I feel happy when I score a point, but I also feel admiration and can’t help smiling when my opponent gains a point with an attacking move I’ve never encountered before. It’s these moments that I love about badminton.”
How Para badminton changed her life
“When I started using a wheelchair, I confined myself to home, reluctant to ride on trains and buses because I didn’t want people to see me in a wheelchair. Even if I did go out, I would come across many barriers, such as stepped surfaces and inaccessible heights, which made me give up. But Para badminton changed my mindset,” Satomi recalls.
“If I hadn’t encountered Para badminton, I would still be spending most of my life at home. At first, I was reluctant to play, not being able to see the fun part of the sport, but once I got serious, a whole new world opened up. I started having great fun. I’m profoundly grateful to my father, who kind of forced me to join the club,” she explains.
She has also gained mental strength, becoming capable of going anywhere around the world by herself. She now feels comfortable asking a stranger for help if she needs support.
“I think that’s an aspect of my like in which I’ve achieved growth, although my parents miss helping me,” she laughs.
You never know how things might turn out.
“In fact, I’m surprised at myself for having come this far. It makes me think that whenever you have the opportunity to start something, you may as well take the plunge,” she says.
Now aged 22, Satomi is aiming for two gold medals at Tokyo 2020 on her home soil, in both the singles and doubles.
“Para badminton will be included in the Paralympic programme for the first time, so I definitely would like to become the ‘first queen.’ I’m exhilarated about the Games being hosted in Japan because it will help promote the sport to a wider audience. I also want to see people close to me get excited to see me play and win, so I will do my best.”