SERYU Monika: Japan Paralympic star connecting beyond competitions

Monika Seryu during Women's canoe Sprint KL1 Semi-final of the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games.
Monika Seryu during Women's canoe Sprint KL1 Semi-final of the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games.

"For a while, I found it really hard to motivate myself to practise. There was a delayed reaction before the shock of the postponement really hit me."

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic that is requiring all of us to curtail our normal activities, there are many athletes who are continuing with their daily training routines ahead of the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games - many of whom share their thoughts via social media.

Among such athletes is SERYU Monika, who came eighth in Paralympic Canoe at Rio 2016 (having only taken up the sport two years previously) and is already among those selected to compete in Tokyo.

She tells Tokyo 2020 of her aspirations for next summer and finding the positives in the current climate.

Trying to send out enjoyable messages

I started sending out messages through social media because I wanted to eliminate bias, or preconceived ideas, held by the public about people with an impairment.

Before my injury, I used to presume that life must be really tough for people with an impairment, but now that I’m in the very same boat, I know that I was wrong. I enjoy every day of my life, and there are many things I can do despite my impairment. I wanted people to know this, which is why I share my thoughts via social media.

I try to send out funny and enjoyable messages, although sometimes I go too far with my jokes. I want to convey myself as an individual that people might feel inclined to support. Particularly with a sport like Paralympic Canoe, the public rarely have the chance to get to know the sport, so I try to promote it myself. My belief is that if I tell people, for example, that I enjoy jigsaw puzzles, some jigsaw puzzle lovers may start supporting me because of our common interest. Likewise, sharing more information about myself, such as my hobbies and music and books I like, may also help me share my thoughts and emotions with others.

It makes an athlete very happy to be cheered on by many supporters. Having supporters is also crucial for athletes. To get people to root for us, we need to get them to feel close to us. People are likely to regard athletes as fighters in a sporting arena, but there is more to us than meets the eye.

The current situation provides us with an opportunity to share with the public how we train at home. Showing ourselves in the same situation as everyone else may help people to realise that athletes are people they can relate to, just like their family and friends around them.

Sharing what I have accumulated

I also believe that there is a particular significance in athletes sending out their own messages. One aspect of an athlete’s value lies in their competition results, but the ability to communicate about themselves during this period also attaches tremendous meaning to them.

While engaging in their respective sports, athletes should share what they have accumulated as an individual through social media. Many Para athletes, for example, have a mindset of trying to use their imagination to do whatever they can instead of giving up doing what they wanted to do. By sharing our thoughts during this restrictive time, we may be able to trigger a change in people’s perceptions. It is my hope to send out messages that help people transform their thinking.

My ideal is for social media to be used as a tool for connecting with others beyond competitions.

Olympic and Paralympic athletes have recently been enjoying far greater opportunities to interact with each other through social media, not only with athletes of the same event but with those of other sports and events. This enables us to get to know each other, and what’s more, encourages those following our online interactions to take an interest in a wider range of sports. This ideal motivates me to send out messages that might appeal to a wider audience.

Shock of postponement hit me with a time lag

Let me tell you a little bit about what I have been up to lately. During the stay-at-home period, I was in Okinawa Prefecture. As the local gym was closed, I couldn’t practise fully, but I trained at home by increasing my heart rate using my hand cycle and other devices I had at home.

To tell you the truth, when the postponement of the Tokyo 2020 Games was announced, I took the news in a positive light, thinking it might actually enhance my chances of gaining a gold medal. My performances were improving during the 2019 season, and I was confident that I would be able to develop further.

However, about two weeks after the announcement, the Paracanoe World Championships and the World Cup were also called off, which deprived me of my goals.

For a while, I found it really hard to motivate myself to practise. There was a delayed reaction before the shock of the postponement really hit me. Yet, I managed to put this behind me. We athletes are used to working towards our goals, which is why I was able to naturally pick myself up and start moving forward again.

Para canoeist Seryu Monika is expected to medal at Tokyo 2020
Para canoeist Seryu Monika is expected to medal at Tokyo 2020
Tokyo 2020

Returning to university

During the stay-at-home period I returned to university, which was a significant change for me. I’m enrolled in the School of Physical Education, Health & Sport Sciences at the University of Tsukuba. I had planned to take a leave of absence until the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games ended to enable me to concentrate on Paracanoe. However, the postponement of the Tokyo 2020 Games would inevitably push back my graduation by a further year, so I thought I might as well study while I can, so I decided to return to university in April. I am currently a member of the Adapted Physical Education & Activity Lab, where I study how people with an impairment can enjoy physical activities with others for recreation.

I also take courses on sports biomechanics (the study of the body movement and mechanism in physical activities based on physics, mechanics and other related sciences), anatomy, kinematics, and training studies. The hands-on, practical teaching certainly helps me understand Paracanoe as a sport and plan effective training regimens. All the classes are available online, so I hope to acquire as many academic credits as possible while I’m at home.

I also spend time on jigsaw puzzles! As I mentioned earlier, I’ve always loved jigsaw puzzles, and often try to solve puzzles to develop my powers of concentration. Before we were asked to stay-at-home, I didn’t get much time to do puzzles because I was usually too tired after practice, but the pandemic gave me enough time to complete four puzzles in a month!

Focusing on the present rather than on the future or the past

Since the state of emergency was lifted earlier this year, I have been practicing at the National Training Center for Paracanoe, namely, the Lake Kiba Canoe Sprint Course in Ishikawa Prefecture. I take thorough precautions to prevent infection by wearing a face mask as soon as I get out of the water and whenever I’m not in training.

I try not to think too much about the Olympic and Paralympic Games next year. Despite such uncertainties, I must continue with my rigorous training. So, instead of focusing on the future or the past, I intend to concentrate on the present and practice hard.

My motto going forward is to 'do what I can now to the extent possible'.

At speaking engagements, we athletes often say, “It’s easy to find reasons for not being able to do something; let’s try to find things we can do instead”.

The pandemic has forced me to face an extreme change to my daily routine for the second time in my life, the first time being when I was injured. The experience has allowed me to understand once again what it really means to try to find things I can do. I was also reminded that I tend to become dispirited when I lose sight of my goal, reaffirming the importance of always having a future goal set for myself.

Now that I have analysed myself, I hope to give more meaning to everyday life going forward.