Aspirations of Paralympics Hopefuls

Two new sports will be making their debut in the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics -- taekwondo and badminton. A top-ranked Japanese para-badminton player is hoping to serve up gold on the court.

Mamiko Toyoda is currently the world's number 3 in para-badminton's standing class. Her goal for Tokyo 2020 is crystal clear. "I want to win gold medal in 2020, so I'm working hard and staying focused to make that happen," she says.

Toyoda was born missing the lower part of her left arm. She took up badminton when she was 9. Her mother, Midori, loved the sport. The 2 played together, practicing for hours and that led to Mamiko's interest. "My mother was the one who taught me badminton. So she's been very special to me in that way. Her guidance has helped me toward my goal of competing in the Paralympics," says Toyoda.

Toyoda got her big break in 2013, when she won gold at the world para-badminton championships. Four years on, she's still striving to improve her game, working with her coach on strengthening her weaker left side.

Naturally favoring her right has left her vulnerable on the other side, and slightly imbalanced. "Toyoda needs to balance both sides. She's learning to get more flexible movement by using both her arms and her hips," says her coach, Kanako Yonekura.

Toyoda recognizes the value of training her left arm as well as her right and sees the potential to scale new heights. "I think that building up year after year of training like this can help me develop my game. That's what I have to focus on if I'm to reach my ultimate goal," says Toyoda.

Athletes are dedicating themselves to training for the Paralympics. But they face special difficulties that require unique solutions. We spoke with one para-athlete to find out more about these challenges.

Eri Yamamoto-MacDonald is aiming to compete in the para-powerlifting competition. She began lifting just a year ago. But she already holds the Japanese record in the 55kg weight class.

Para powerlifting is a sport for athletes who have limited or no use of their lower limbs. They lift weights using just their upper body strength. To secure her lower body, a strap is essential. “If I wrap this strap around my legs, it stabilizes them and makes it easier to lift my upper body,” Yamamoto explains. She has been looking for one that fits her body, but the choice is limited.

Shoes are also important to help grip the surface of the lifting bench. “I can’t move my feet back by myself if they slide for any reason,” she says. After trying lots of different types, Yamamoto settled on a pair of shoes normally worn in athletic throwing events. "We want choices depending on impairment and skill," she says.

A gathering of para-sports organizations and small and mid-sized businesses was organized by the Tokyo metropolitan government with the aim of developing equipment for para-athletes. "The sports organizations were unsure about how to make their needs known, which is why we organized this gathering," explains Akiko Kayaba from the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games Division.

A coach at the Japanese Para-Powerlifting Federation explains the challenges their lifters face to the businesses. “The strap is important -- we need to find ones made from suitable materials." "We hope this event will encourage para-sports," says a Japan Triathlon Union official. "We want to use their ideas," says a Japan Para Archery Federation official.

Most of the companies have no experience developing equipment for para-sports, but they’re now exploring whether their knowledge could help even more athletes achieve their goals.

Para-Power lifter Eri Yamamoto-MacDonald joins NHK World's Raja Pradhan in the studio.

Pradhan: As we've just seen, a project is underway to develop materials and equipment for para-athletes. What kind of results do you think it will provide?

Yamamoto-MacDonald: The project will help me achieve my goal. Of course, I'll do my best. But also I hope people will know our difficulties and needs, and more businesses will develop equipment.

Pradhan: Before you began power lifting, you worked as a mental trainer for para-athletes, as well as actually being an athlete. What do you think is lacking in Japan in regard to para-sports, based on your professional experiences?

Yamamoto-MacDonald: I've been to the Paralympics as a sports psychologist before -- I've been doing that since Beijing 2008. And I also played para-ice hockey in Canada. When I came back to Japan from Canada, I visited some sports gyms for my training. But they requested someone who would accompany with me. I was very surprised. In Canada, I didn't feel such a difference between a person with disabilities and without disabilities.

Pradhan: Do you think Tokyo 2020 will change the attitude in Japan toward para-sports?

Yamamoto-MacDonald: In Japan, there are 2 problems for para-athletes. Firstly, infrastructure...we need more barrier-free places. Secondly, a mental misunderstanding that people have. Many people have a mental barrier and don't know how to communicate with us. I want them to know we are not different from them. I expect the Paralympics will improve mutual understanding. And also Japanese technologies are amazing and can help people with impairments all over the world.