"Merely being an athlete who can swim fast is not enough for me. Unless I can help the public understand what it means to have an impairment and exert some kind of impact on society, it would be meaningless for me to be a Paralympian."
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 them is TOMITA Uchu, a Para swimmer who is ranked No. 2 in the world in 400m freestyle and 100m butterfly in the vision impairment classification S11 (as of May 2020).
Tomita won silver medals in both events at the 2019 World Para Swimming Championships and spoke to Tokyo 2020 about his aim of adding to his medal collection at the Paralympic Games next year.
Aspiring to make the Paralympic Games a must-see event
Given today’s situation where everyone is experiencing all kinds of difficulties due to the coronavirus pandemic, I asked myself what I could do as a Paralympic hopeful. It occurred to me that I could support people by sending out messages through social media.
In my view, the Paralympic Games provides a setting for athletes to tackle out-of-the-ordinary challenges and to express their potential through sports.
As an athlete aspiring to become a Paralympian, I thought that I may have something to share with others based on my own experiences of having overcome all sorts of tribulations, and that maybe I could spread positive energy to help them in some way. Prompted by such thoughts, I started sending out messages through social media.
I have a progressive disease that impairs my vision, which prevents me from freely going outside. I have been in this condition since long before the spread of the coronavirus, so I accept my lifestyle as normal and do not particularly feel distressed by the current situation. Looking at my own experiences made me realise that I may have something unique to share with the world.
Another reason why I share my ideas through social media is that I want to help the public to widely recognise the significance of the Paralympic Games.
The Olympic Games are widely perceived as the pinnacle of high-performance sports, but the significance of hosting the Paralympics lies in promoting the inclusion of a diverse array of people. Because I fully support this underlying philosophy of the Paralympics, I have dreamed of being a part of the event and using myself as a tool to proliferate that ideal. As such, merely being an athlete who can swim fast is not enough for me. Unless I can help the public understand what it means to have an impairment and exert some kind of impact on society, it would be meaningless for me to be a Paralympian. I believe the real significance of the Paralympics lies in pursuing such goals.
The Paralympic Games is currently something we “ask” people to watch and cheer on. This is not how it should be. The Paralympics should be a “must-see” event for everyone. To make the Paralympics cooler and more exciting, I am working on its branding and marketing strategies with support from others around me. Although challenging, I hope to produce results in the year leading up to the Games. I am now working on communicating messages, translating them into English, and seeking advice from team members regarding photos and video footage, which I cannot see for myself. I will continue conveying my ideas going forward.
Reforming my body to acquire a dynamic swimming form
On the competition front, unfortunately I can barely practice in the pool these days. So instead of working on swimming techniques, I focus on enhancing my physical abilities through stretching exercises to increase flexibility and the range of motion.
My body is in a neutral state now, so I am trying to increase mobility in areas that lacked mobility, use muscles I hadn’t been using, ride the exercise bike to retain my stamina, and lift heavy barbells and dumbbells to maintain my muscle strength. In other words, I am reviewing my body from the basics and meticulously reforming and building my physique to enhance my performance.
My ultimate aim is to extend the reach of each stroke. To achieve this, I am working on increasing the range of motion of the rib cage and the in-depth muscles of the shoulders so that the arms can move dynamically together with the shoulder blades and the back, as well as strengthening the small muscles buried in the big joints to correct shoulder mobility and empower weaker areas. I focus on these aspects because my swimming efficiency still has a lot of room for improvement.
My overall body motions are small and I depend a lot on rhythm now, so I am seeking to capture larger amounts of water with each stroke to acquire a dynamic swimming technique that enables me to move forward with more momentum.
Graduate research on coaching
Besides training, I have always been an avid reader, more so than usual in this stay-at-home time, and I also work hard on research as a graduate student. Given the rising performances of Paralympians around the world, their coaches are faced with changing requirements. My research aims to ascertain the types of coaches being used by Paralympic medalists worldwide and explain the coaching abilities currently in demand.
When you make the transition from sport as a means of rehabilitation to competitive sport, professional knowledge of the Games becomes essential. Indeed, some athletes bidding for medals at the Paralympic Games are coached by Olympians or their coaches.
Swimming can be enjoyed by people with or without impairment alike. No tools are needed to swim and many of the techniques required are the same for swimmers with or without impairment. It is therefore said to be ideal for a Para swimming coach to be equipped with the professional expertise required to train Olympic swimmers and an understanding of the Paralympic Games and physical or other impairments.
To foster Para athlete coaches, it is necessary to provide them with cross-sectional learning opportunities. Countries that have succeeded in doing so tend to achieve better results. The key is for coaches and athletes to get in touch and exchange information and for the Olympics and Paralympics to be held in a more integrated manner.
Aiming for gold medals in 400m freestyle and 100m butterfly
As competition schedules are still uncertain, it is extremely difficult for me to set specific goals and milestones towards the Paralympics next year.
My long-term aim objective is to keep renewing my personal best times at competitions, so for now I am focusing on steadily enhancing my physical performance. To prepare for competitions, I first of all need to regain my former swimming abilities. The first step would be to achieve better times than I did at the World Para Swimming Championships last year. Then, I intend to mark the times equivalent to the then world’s No. 1 ranking at the qualifying meet next year. And in the build up to next summer, I hope to be doing what I had planned to do this year.
At the Paralympic Games, I hope to win gold medals in the 400m freestyle and 100m butterfly events, as well as a medal in the 200m individual medley. As there is no way of knowing how other swimmers are doing now, I have only to stay focused on my own training. I am trying not to get ahead of myself and be overwhelmed by all the uncertainties ahead. I am simply keeping my eyes on my list of challenges and executing my daily training accordingly based on the weekly plans I draw up. I haven’t made any long-term plans.
Paralympics as a means of turning the world into a more comfortable place for everyone
Given the current social situation, we should place top priority on creating a safe and healthy world from the perspectives of healthcare and the economy. If we can successfully ensure the safety and well-being of everyone, the Games will serve as a celebration of the fact that the world is back on its feet, having overcome the confusion and formidable challenges it confronted.
It would be fantastic if the Games could provide the greatest stage for sharing the excitement of having conquered the coronavirus and renewing our motivation. My personal hope is to be able to display impressive performances and clinch gold medals on the big stage as one of the Japanese athletes. If I can achieve this feat, I believe I can help the public to better understand people with an impairment and the importance of accepting diversity.
At times, I myself am subject to discrimination and prejudice. I hope to be able to convey messages to help change such negative attitudes and create a better society where everyone feels more comfortable and included.
I used to be free of impairment. When I suddenly came to be treated as a person with an impairment, I felt rather disconcerted because I was still essentially the same person and nothing about me, apart from my eyesight, had changed. I’ve had my share of struggles, so I can imagine what others with an impairment must be going through, having a hard time being understood. It can’t be helped that my activities are restricted because of my progressive vision impairment, but I’d like to at least help turn the world into a more comfortable place to live in. And the Paralympics will hopefully trigger such change.
It would be ideal if people could understand one another, unreservedly accepting what they share in common and what they do not.
In Japan, being “different” tends to be regarded as being “unusual.” I’d like to spread the idea that it’s only natural for people to have diverse and varied characteristics.