Japanese wheelchair fencer aims for Tokyo 2020 gold

The Tokyo Paralympics will begin on August 25 next year. It involves 540 events across 22 sports, featuring athletes with various disabilities. One of the events is wheelchair fencing.

Wheelchair fencer pursues Tokyo 2020

Anri Sakurai is a wheelchair fencer vying to take part in the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics. Sakurai was a long-distance runner in high school. She aspired to be a physical therapist who could help with the rehabilitation of people with disabilities, and achieved this goal after graduating from a vocational school.

But soon after she began working, she suffered a slipped disc and underwent surgery, which left her paralyzed from the waist down. She was only 20 years old at the time. Sakurai sank into despair and was left without a purpose in life.

But when she started to work at a sporting goods store, she had a fateful encounter with the then-head of the Japan Wheelchair Fencing Association, who encouraged her to take up the sport. Sakurai began fencing in 2014.

Only three years later, she won silver in an epee event at the World Cup in February 2017. But she says the medal she won is only a stepping stone for the Tokyo Paralympics.

Anri Sakurai is the top female wheelchair fencer of Japan.

Difficulties in training

Sakurai's training environment is far from sufficient. She practices in a classroom of a now defunct elementary school near Kyoto Station, together with male wheelchair fencers.

She does not get adequate financial support. As she is a certified athlete in the sport, she receives assistance for overseas competitions and other events. But the amount is much smaller than what the athletes vying for the Olympics receive.

In the 2016 Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro, qualifications for each wheelchair fencing event were expanded from athletes within the top eight in the world rankings to the top twelve. This was because Russian athletes were banned from taking part. But the number of seats for the Tokyo Paralympics are yet to be announced. Athletes need to keep their rankings as high as possible to secure their place in it.

The race for the Tokyo Games began in October last year. Competitions are being held around the world that give wheelchair fencers the chance to earn ranking points that will eventually decide their fate.

Big event in Japan

The first wheelchair fencing World Cup was held in Kyoto in 2018.

The competitions include the first-ever wheelchair fencing World Cup that was held in Japan. The major international competition involved far more athletes and wheelchairs compared with domestic competitions.

It was the first time for the Japan Wheelchair Association to host such a large event, and it faced several problems. There was a severe shortage in the number of volunteers to support the matches, mainly due to the low recognition of the sport in Japan.

The association held training sessions for volunteers in Tokyo and Kyoto to try to remedy the situation. Yoshinori Yamada was among those who took part. The 47 year old played fencing when he was a university student, but had never heard of wheelchair fencing until the event. He decided to work as a volunteer, hoping to contribute to the sport.

The first-ever wheelchair fencing World Cup held in Japan gathered about 200 athletes from 27 countries in the city of Kyoto in December 2018. Those who won medals in Rio also took part. Everyone did their best to win as many ranking points as possible. Sakurai was no exception. She was full of vigor and fighting spirit.

Nearing 2020

Sakurai moved to London last October, as she has no rivals in Japan. Her tactics and skills improved significantly after the move. She receives training from Kenichi Yamamoto, a Japanese coach who trains young British fencers. Sakurai has moved a step closer to Paralympic gold after working with him.

She trained late into the night with Yamamoto on the eve of the Kyoto competition. They carried her equipment to fix her wheelchair into hotel room to practice so that they could draw up tactical plans without being monitored by others.

Since then, she has won bronze in a foil event in Kyoto and in the following World Cup in the UAE.

Sakurai won bronze at the World Cup, but she wasn’t satisfied.

As of May, she places fifth in the world rankings. If she can maintain her rank, she will be able to secure a seat in the Tokyo Paralympics.

Sakurai says she is doing all she can to catch up with the world's top athletes ahead of the Tokyo Paralympics in hopes of winning gold in her home country.