The Japanese para swimmer wants to qualify for her home Games and inspire a future generation of Paralympians
YUI Maori, who is 18-years-old, is a Para swimmer aiming to compete at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games. Find out what sparked Yui's fascination for swimming and how she got hooked on the sport.
Moving freely in water
Since she was a little girl, Yui loved being in the water. She sensed no fear unlike other children her age.
"My nursery schoolteacher and my parents said that I seemed happier in the swimming pool. Not being able to move freely on land, I felt happier in the water because I could float and move just like everyone else," Yui recalled.
"I probably got hooked on swimming because I am able to move any way I wanted to."
Yui, who has Larsen syndrome which hinders her ability to move from the waist down, took up swimming in her first year at elementary school as a form of rehabilitation.
“When I was still a beginner, my record improved rapidly with every competition, so it was really fun and exciting. Yet, I had no intention of becoming a top swimmer. I was only hoping to achieve results that would satisfy myself. It was after my coach started teaching me that I started practising seriously,” she said.
But it was during her fifth year at elementary school that SHIBATA Yasuhide, a coach who had been working at a sports facility in Isezaki City, Gunma Prefecture - where Yui lived - invited the young swimmer to join his morning practice session.
Everything changed after accepting the invitation. Shibata was the coach who guided NARA Erika to four consecutive Paralympic Games winning multiple gold and bronze medals.
Practice increased from once a week to twice and eventually four times a week, with the duration of each session extending from one to two hours.
“At first, I felt the practice was ‘too long’," Yui laughed.
"But because of Mr. Shibata’s guidance, flaws in my forms became apparent and I learned how to correct them, which gradually allowed me to improve my time."
Aiming for the top
After an international event in Singapore in 2019, Yui was classified as S5 swimmer (S1/SB1 -S10/SB10 is for athletes with physical impairment). She later on qualified for Japanese Para-Swimming Federation's development training programme.
“I didn’t think I could ever be a top-tier athlete, but (at the training camp) everyone else was serious about swimming. Being with them, I started having ambitions that maybe if I worked hard enough, I could aim for the top,” she said.
Practising at the Ajinomoto National Training Center (NTC) also gave her a lot of motivation.
“There were gold medallists, Olympians as well as Paralympians,” Yui said.
Now Yui is in pursuit of finding her unique swimming style - one that will bring the best out of her.
“In swimming, you use nothing else but your own body. You only have your body to make the best of. No tools, no excuses. That’s what makes swimming appealing."
With Para swimmers at Tokyo 2020 set to be grouped into 14 classes, each athlete will swim their distinctive style that works best for their impairment. Yui aims to hone her style so that she can maximise the use of her long arms, which help compensate for her impairment in her lower legs.
And this is what the spirit of the Paralympic Games is all about. As Sir Ludwig Guttmann - the father of the Paralympics once said: “Don't worry about what you have lost. Just make the most of what you have left. Remember, what counts is ability, not disability."
© Tokyo 2020
Prowess in butterfly
Being better at long distances, Yui aims to compete in the 200m freestyle S5 and 200m individual medley S5 at the Paralympic Games. In preparation for Tokyo 2020, she entered the individual medley at the Japan Para Swimming Championships in November 2019.
“Even though I had been practising the 200m individual medley for a long time, I was not confident because I was afraid of drowning midway. But after agreeing to compete in the event, I became focussed. I was concerned mostly about the butterfly and the backstroke - events I’d never competed in, but I managed to swim through to the end,” she explained.
Backstroke and butterfly are difficult strokes for swimmers with low functions of the lower limb. That’s why fulfilling the challenge brought her great self-confidence and also opened her eyes to something new as Yui explained.
“With long-distance freestyle, the fun part comes in the latter half when you either chase down the rivals and take over them or break away to widen your lead," she said.
"With individual medley, it’s naturally fun to switch events every 50m. Even though I have a lot of room for improvement in all events, it’s fulfilling to tackle issues one by one. Actually, I was surprised to find out that my lap time for butterfly was quite good. I may be able to go faster."
At the fiscal 2020 first intensive training camp/autumn para swimming meet held on 7-8 November - which took place after a long break from racing due to the COVID-19 pandemic - Yui effortlessly reached the finish line in the 200m individual medley.
Inspiring young people with impairment
As the Games will be hosted on home soil, Yui still needs to qualify for Tokyo 2020. While the postponement of the Games was disappointing, being able to swim again at the intensive training camp reignited her aspiration to fulfil her dream.
“Having been put on the team of athletes designated for intensive training, my hopes are up. Now that I’ve come this far, I don’t want to give up," Yui said.
"At Tokyo 2020, I want to race in the finals."
Yui believes seeing young Para athletes like herself making all-out efforts at the Paralympic Games will encourage them to take a step forward.
Since Tokyo has been selected to host the Games, momentum is already building up for the Paralympics.
"I hope the impact of Tokyo 2020 will extend beyond the Games and help make society a better place for people with impairments.”
© Tokyo 2020