'Mentally I was going through a tough time': Hometown hero SERYU Monika strives to be a symbol of hope

Monika-Seryu

Every day there are those who strive to move forward: With a Paralympic year finally upon us, SERYU Monika looks ahead to a historic summer of sport on home soil.

With the hope that the Tokyo 2020 Games will be a beacon of light, para canoeist SERYU Monika expresses her thoughts on the postponement of the Games. As the world fought against the COVID-19 pandemic, Seryu, who was selected to join the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic team, also struggled with the realities of the postponement. Her source of “light” was her fellow athletes. Through exchanges with athletes from other sports, she realised the importance of having goals, and resolved to keep moving forward in order to win a gold medal at the Tokyo 2020 Games.

SERYU Monika: Looking forward to the future

Disappearing competitions, disappearing goals

Seryu learned of the Games’ postponement while at a private training camp in Ogimi Village, Okinawa. News of the pandemic had even reached this small village in northern Okinawa with a population of around 3,000 people. Having secured a place on the Tokyo 2020 team after placing fifth at the 2019 ICF Paracanoe World Championships, she was anxious about the Games’ outcome, which she eventually learned about during the evening news.

“At that moment, my coach and I looked at each other and said, ‘What do we do?’ I’m glad it was only postponed, because some athletes thought it might be cancelled. Since it wasn’t, I was able to stay positive.”

The Games that were only five months away were now 17 months into the future. Although initially content with the additional time, other consequences soon began to surface. National competitions and the world championships were cancelled. All scheduled events disappeared from her calendar. Just as people around the world suffered from the loss of social activities, the extra time created by the Games’ postponement became a source of distress for Seryu.

“Little by little it started to hit me like small body blows. Tournaments were being cancelled, and I lost sight of what I was working so hard towards. Not having any competitions for this length of time was a first for me, and the focus of my training shifted to maintaining, rather than improving. Mentally, I was going through a tough time.”

Encouraged by fellow athletes in the ’97 Club’

Seryu’s fellow athletes gave her hope again. Previously limited to interactions with athletes from the same sport or affiliation, the Japan Institute of Sports Sciences (JISS) and the National Training Center (NTC) provided a greater opportunity for athletes from various fields to connect. Through these encounters, Seryu and others who were also born in 1997, formed the ’97 Club’. Interacting with other top athletes of the same generation provided her with the support she was seeking to refocus on 2021.

“There was plenty of time to talk online during lockdown, about things like when facilities might open again and training regimens. Sharing information was encouraging, and I realised that I wasn’t alone in my struggle. I gained a lot of strength through those interactions… even though the connection from Okinawa was a bit unstable.”

Daily goals and regained optimism

Seryu recognised the importance of having goals. The state of emergency affected all areas of life – not being able to travel, meet, or do things at will. Days passed as activities remained restricted, and Seryu was anxious like so many others. But by setting daily goals for herself, she was able to continue moving forward.

“What can I do today? What should I do tomorrow? By answering these questions and taking action every day, I felt fulfilled and a sense of ease. I’ve continued this method even after lockdown.”

Originally planning to return home to Tokyo in April, with travel restrictions and the closure of gyms and training facilities, she remained in Okinawa until June. Although concerned about the developing situation in Tokyo, she was able to focus on her training in the calmer setting of Okinawa.

“With far fewer people in Ogimi Village, there was no worry or stress about avoiding crowded, close-contact settings. It was mainly the coach and I, sometimes visited by the trainer or mechanic, and my mother on occasion when she felt like coming by. Even during practice, there isn’t a need for physical contact. It was my third year in Okinawa, and I find it to be a really good environment for training with little distraction”.

Although she lacked access to the latest facilities, her outdoor training went well. The most problematic issue she encountered was obtaining training equipment. With many people staying home, weight training dumbbells were in high demand and sold out online. 

At one point she even used a watermelon from a farmer’s market as a substitute.

“I found one that was the perfect weight, so I used that in place of a dumbbell. It lacked stability, so it required improvement. And of course we ate it after training. The lesson was, you shouldn’t play with your food,” she laughed.

In June, she relocated to the National Training Center in Komatsu, Ishikawa, and took part in the Japan Paracanoe Championships in September. Although not in the best condition after suffering a costal cartilage fracture a week prior, she gained more momentum for the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games with a victory. She then returned to Okinawa to concentrate on her recovery and continues to train to take home gold.

“I’m reviewing the basics right now. The axes of the body and head positions. I’m training on an inland sea, so there’s wind and waves. Last year, I was focused on just withstanding those conditions, so my paddling was chaotic. But now, I can paddle steadily even with some wind. I can give a solid performance despite the conditions. I’ve even changed my canoe to one that is better for going straight. It’s less stable, but once I’ve mastered it, I’ll be able to improve my time.”

A 20-minute drive from home, local expectations and being a “symbol of hope” for many

The canoe sprint venue, Sea Forest (Uminomori) Waterway, is located in Seryu’s hometown of Koto City where canoeing is a popular pursuit. Utilising the rivers that run through the city, the ward founded a canoe club ten years ago and provides many people with the opportunity to enjoy the activity. As an original member of the canoe club, she has a strong sentiment for the Tokyo 2020 Games and acknowledges the high expectations from her hometown.

“The venue is only a 20-minute drive from my home. I’m about the only athlete that can say that, so I have special feelings about it. Canoeing is very popular in Koto City. A middle school student won a national championship and seniors in their 80s enjoy it too. People wish me ‘good luck’ on the street or sometimes even from a bridge above, and I’m very grateful for that. I’d like to be a source of aspiration for those people”.

Many fans are drawn to her bright personality. Her trademark ‘Monika Smile’ livens up her surroundings. “I’m not even aware I’m doing it. Maybe my mouth is too loose,” she says, laughing again.

“I’m surrounded by very positive people, so they probably stamp out all the negativity around me. And mentally, I feel young. Even when I visit elementary schools, I have no problem fitting in. I become friends with the local kids in Okinawa quite quickly, and we race and play.”

With the threat of COVID-19 yet to subside, Seryu does have moments of apprehension. However, with the goal of a gold medal firmly in sight, she has chosen to use the additional year effectively in preparation for the Tokyo 2020 Games.

“It would be great if lots of spectators could fill the stands, but firstly I’d like for the Games to be able to take place. That’s what all the athletes want. I’ve dedicated myself to paracanoe and have been preparing for this event since Rio. The Games provide the best stage to showcase those efforts. Although the global situation is still dire, I’d like for the Tokyo 2020 Games to be a symbol of hope and provide that much-needed light at the end of the tunnel”.

So that she, and the Games, can provide that bright optimism, Seryu once again sets off with an explosive start towards the finish line 200-metres away.

The Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games canoe sprint competition begins on Thursday 2 September 2021 at Sea Forest Waterway.

Looking forward to the future