Japan's top para swimmer aims to win his first gold medal at a home Paralympics
Para swimmer KIMURA Keiichi looked cheerful when he turned up at the training camp venue. "When the postponement [of the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games] was decided, I thought it was quite understandable. Indeed, it probably wasn’t the right time for such an event to be held. As a matter of fact, I felt I could use the extra year to work on my swimming."
"I still have a lot of room for improvement. The postponement would give me the time to squarely tackle the sport, and to think about other things too, so the news didn’t shock me much,” he said.
Kimura trains in the 50m swimming pool at the ASICS Sports Complex TOKYO BAY, which closely emulates the lane layout for the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games and offers a low-oxygen environment like that of high-altitude training. As of August 2020, the world ranking for the men’s 100m butterfly in the vision impairment classification S11 is topped by Kimura, who has already been informally selected to compete for Japan at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games, followed by TOMITA Uchu in second place (based on the Minimum Qualification Standard Rankings for the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games).
Kimura swims alongside Tomita, his rival and compatriot aiming for glory at Tokyo 2020, checking out the feel of the pool and at times enjoying a friendly chat.
The COVID-19 pandemic forced Kimura to make an urgent return to Japan from the United States, his training base, without any idea of when he would be able to return. Even in such circumstances, he kept a positive mindset.
In fact, he has already put this all behind him.
© Tokyo 2020
When the postponement of the Tokyo 2020 Games was announced, Kimura received a message from American Para swimmer Bradley Snyder, who had become a Para athlete after losing his eyesight during his deployment for the US Navy in Afghanistan.
Snyder had topped the podium twice at London 2012 and three times at Rio 2016. He is also Kimura’s long-time rival and friend, who had introduced him to his coach Brian Loeffler.
Snyder’s message to him read: “I'm sorry you will have to wait one more year to win gold! But I'm sure you will next year! Let me know what your training plans are, I want to support you!”
"The way Bradley put it was really cool," Kimura said. "When I receive such messages from Japanese friends, they usually say something like, ‘You have an extra year to train’ or ‘Do your best next year’ so his message was special for me," he laughed.
Snyder's message of encouragement delighted the Japanese swimmer and made him all the more determined to push forward towards the Paralympic Games.
Aiming for his first Paralympic gold
Born in Shiga Prefecture, Kimura lost his eyesight due to a congenital disease at the age of two and was encouraged to take up swimming by his mother in his fourth year of elementary school.
He made his Paralympic debut at the Beijing 2008 Paralympic Games at the age of 17, finishing fifth. Four years later at London 2012, Kimura not only served as the flag bearer of the Japanese team but clinched a silver medal in the 100m breaststroke and a bronze in the 100m butterfly.
At Rio 2016, he earned two silver and two bronze medals (silvers in the 50m freestyle and 100m butterfly events, bronzes in the 100m breaststroke and 100m freestyle), the highest number of medals among all Japanese athletes.
“London 2012 was the most memorable Games for me. It was truly gratifying to have won my first medal. It was also a moving experience to watch athletes from other countries at the award ceremony, because by that time I was able to empathise with the struggles they must have gone through,” he said.
2012 Getty Images
As for Rio, he said he could barely remember anything because of his disappointment for missing out on gold.
He was ranked no. 1 in the world in the 100m butterfly and was widely tipped as the favourite for the gold, but after making his signature powerful start and being in the lead, after the 50m turn, Kimura lost speed and had to settle for second.
2016 Getty Images
He was revered for winning the most medals for Team Japan, but deep down Kimura felt depressed.
“I had given my absolute best over the previous four years, but that wasn’t enough to win the gold medal. When the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games was over, I thought to myself, ‘I wouldn’t be able to win a gold medal unless I carry on doing what I’ve been doing or work even harder’, and the mere thought of this made me feel unsure if I could put in the effort.”
He realised he needed to get more fun out of life and came up with the idea of training abroad. He wanted to be inspired by something other than swimming, which was his main motivation to move.
“If I’m going overseas, I should choose a place where there is a swimmer who has the same impairment as mine but is a better swimmer,” he thought.
The conclusion was to go to the United States where Snyder was. So, he contacted Snyder through Facebook and asked him to introduce him to his coach Loeffler before he made the move to Baltimore in 2018.
Loeffler was excited to be contacted by Kimura.
"I knew how great of an athlete he was. He was looking to change his strategy and try something new in order to try to win gold in Tokyo. So he came here and met with me, knowing that I trained Brad and Brad had some success and I had success with other para athletes," Loeffer said.
Kimura could neither speak English, nor read his training regimen. At first, he felt frustrated, but as he studied English, he started making improvements up to a point where he was able to communicate easily.
He displays world-class speed in the first half of the race, but sometimes struggles to pace himself to maintain a strong finish. To overcome this, he worked on strengthening his physical endurance. All his efforts paid off and gradually reflected in his performances. He beat both his personal best times in the men’s 200m individual medley and 100m breaststroke events at the 2018 Pan Pacific Para Swimming Championships and claimed a gold medal in the 100m butterfly at 2019 World Para Swimming Championship - an event he was most confident about winning,
He had honed his swimming technique by training in the US but he has also gained a strong mindset.
“I had basically lacked self-confidence, but I came to realise that I may be quite an extraordinary guy. My self-esteem improved. I was able to stand on the starting block, feeling more self-assured.”
Up until then, his self-confidence was mostly backed by the amount of training he had acquired, but he was becoming more self-assured.
“During my time in the US, I kept experiencing things that didn’t go as planned and issues caused by language barriers, but I somehow managed to work things out in the end. I realised that I could overcome adversities. It is this experience that helped me become more self-assured, and this mindset was also reflected in my swimming.”
© Tokyo 2020
For the Paralympic Games to be held in his home country is incredibly special for Kimura. His friends and acquaintances will be able to watch his performances, but he is also pleased about playing hosts to international athletes and visitors.
“As well as being athletes, we are also the hosts of the Paralympic Games, so I began to hope that foreign visitors would enjoy their stay in Tokyo. My training partner and coach are really looking forward to coming to Tokyo. Many people with impairment will be visiting Tokyo to enjoy the Paralympics, and I’m hoping that they feel comfortable in the city. The notion that I’m an athlete and host has made me look forward even more to the Games.”
Many athletes are hoping that the Paralympic Games will trigger a transformation in Tokyo and Japan.
“The event will shed light on athletes with an impairment, so I’m hoping it will be an opportunity for us to step forward and make ourselves more widely recognised, not as exceptional beings, but as common people living their ordinary lives everywhere in this world, just like people without impairment, many of whom are working hard to achieve their dreams. It would be fantastic if the Paralympic Games prompts people to perceive us in a new light.”
At Tokyo 2020, Kimura intends to compete in the 100m butterfly, 100m breaststroke, 50m freestyle, and 200m individual medley events. The most noteworthy event is the 100m butterfly scheduled to take place on 3 September, the final day of Paralympic Swimming.
“I’m confident about my world-class speed in the first half, from the start to the turn, and I believe myself to be the most likely swimmer to win the gold in this event,” he said, proudly.
“First, I’m hoping to clinch the gold medal, and then I’d like to enjoy this major global event along with all the other people of Japan. I hope the Tokyo 2020 Games turns out to be a festive event where athletes around the world have a great time.
“My coach always praises me. He only says, ‘You can do it’, ‘I’m absolutely sure you won’t lose’ and ‘I know for certain that you’ll win’. He makes me feel I’ll never lose,” he laughed.
© Tokyo 2020