A Paralympian in the Making

Wednesday marks 1,000 days until the 2020 Paralympics in Tokyo. The hunt is underway to find young athletes who'll be able to compete.

The Japanese government and sports organizations have launched a nationwide project to identify and nurture promising young para-athletes for 2020. Japan didn't win any gold medals in the Rio Paralympics. The country also slipped in terms of total number of medals won, ranking 64th.

Officials are targeting teenagers with the physical strength and skill to compete and are then offering them technical coaching. One official says they're setting the stage for the development of the next generation of para-athletes in the country. "We want to find young and motivated athletes who aspire to take part in the Olympics, not only the Tokyo games in 2020 but also the following Olympics in Paris and Los Angeles," says Toshihiro Wakui of the Japan Wheelchair Rugby Federation.

One of the hopefuls is a 17-year-old high school student who has a prosthetic leg. His dream of competing in the men's 100-meter sprint has gotten a boost after meeting with a certain gold medalist.

Kazushige Yoshida trains every day after school near his home in northern Japan, 700 kilometers from Tokyo. In September, he placed second in the men’s 100-meter sprint in a tournament. The result meant Yoshida would represent Japan at next month's Asian Youth Para Games in Dubai.

“I realized I’d gotten faster when I saw my name on the list of designated athletes. I can feel I’ve gotten better and that my technique has improved,” says Yoshida. He is a member of his school's athletic team. He's an inspiration to his teammates. "When I run next to him, I see how hard he's training, and I feel like I have to give my best too. Everyone in the team feels the same,” says a teammate. “When I injured my leg, he offered me encouragement. He's a great help,” says another.

But just one year ago, Yoshida wasn't feeling fully confident about his athletic abilities. He was sometimes unable to keep up with his team mates. This left him feeling inadequate. Then, along came someone who helped change Yoshida's approach to sprinting: the gold medalist in the men's100-meter sprint at the London Paralympics, Heinrich Popow of Germany.

Popow now travels the world offering advice and inspiration to para-athletes. Yoshida first met Popov last year. "The first time I saw him, I was excited, because I realized that not only was I meeting a gold medalist but it was also the first time I was meeting another athlete with a prosthetic leg. There were a lot of new discoveries. Popow told me not to focus on what I can't do, but rather on what I can do to improve," says Yoshida.

After training with Popow, Yoshida came up with a new strategy for practice. He now focuses more on hopping on his prosthetic leg to improve his balance. Athletes with prosthetic legs tend to avoid putting weight on the side of their body with the prosthetic.

He now does more weight training than his teammates to strengthen his torso. Yoshida also devotes more time to training on weekends, even on snowy days. He practices at a track near his home.

His father Akinori is always at his side, providing unwavering support. He videotapes his son training, and they review it together. "Kazushige is still young and has potential. He’s also had some amazing opportunities, including meeting Popov. I hope he will keep working toward his dreams and goals," he says.

It was the second time that Yoshida participated in one of Popow's classes. Yoshida learned from Popow about advanced techniques to help him run faster. Popow carefully watched the movement of Yoshida’s legs. He says Yoshida's non-prosthetic leg is acting as a brake and is slowing him down. He instructs him on how to improve.

Popow says no matter what, Yoshida and the other athletes have to keep one thing in mind. "Believe in your dream, believe in yourself, and understand what you are doing, and then you will be, your disabilities will be not, not a problem anymore for you," he says.

Yoshida was again impressed by Popow's words and even more motivated to take part in the Tokyo Paralympics. "I was really happy that I could run with a world class athlete. He was fast. I want to surpass him one day. I want to improve my record and win a medal at the Paralympics," says Yoshida.

NHK World Reporter Keiko Tomura joins Newsroom Tokyo anchors Hideki Nakayama and Aki Shibuya in the studio.

Shibuya: There's a good chance that Yoshida may qualify for the Games. What's needed to increase the number of para-athletes like him in Japan?

Tomura: One thing Japan needs to do is create more opportunities for people with disabilities to take part in sports. As we saw, Yoshida usually practices with his teammates at school. He was fortunate to attend Popow's running clinics, but that was a very rare opportunity.

Popow hosts seminars around the world and encourages people with disabilities to train together. I think we need to create more training camps like these if we want the number of para-athletes to increase. One participant spoke to me about the impact of the running clinic on her motivation. "I want to be positive at all times and have the confidence to challenge anything, even though I have a prosthetic leg," she said.

Nakayama: Can these developments in this world of sport have a broader impact on people with disabilities as a whole?

Tomura: When I spoke with people with disabilities, they expressed hope for a barrier-free society. By that, they meant not only physical barriers, but also mental ones. The 2020 Tokyo Paralympic Games will be an opportunity for Japan to eliminate all barriers and create a more inclusive society.