A swimmer who accepted a decline in her vision and became a para-swimming athlete under the guidance of her friend aims to compete in the 2020 Tokyo Paralympic Games.
Ayano Tsujiuchi, 21, who competed in the Inter High School Sports Festival hosted by All Japan High School Athletic Federation as an athlete without disabilities, won five medals at the 2018 Pan Pacific Para Swimming Championships in Australia in early August.
In the spring of 2015, Tsujiuchi went to a karaoke shop with Yuki Morishita, one of her teammates from a swimming club at Showa Gakuin Senior High School. Morishita, who was missing part of a left arm from birth, could more than compete with abled-bodied swimmers at competitions at the time.
Tsujiuchi had to look very closely at the touch panel on the remote control showing the lyrics while singing because she was already starting to lose her sight. "You can come to 'para' if you become visually impaired," Morishita said jokingly. A short while later, Tsujiuchi was diagnosed with macular dystrophy, a rare genetic eye disorder that causes gradual loss of vision, after being examined at a hospital.
Tsujiuchi was inspired by Morishita, who later competed against top swimmers around the world in the 2016 Summer Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro, and sent a message to her friend from her cellphone. "I got the identification booklet for those with physical disabilities," Tsujiuchi said. Morishita replied, "What are you going to do? Do you want to do it (para-swimming)?"
Following the invitation from her best friend, Tsujiuchi decided give it a try as she "just wanted to compete."
Tsujiuchi made her debut in a para-swimming competition held by the Kanto Swimming Federation for the Disabled, in June 2017. After three months, she had set a new record in three events for class "S13," a classification for athletes with mild degrees of visual impairment. Tsujiuchi joined the Japan national team in March this year, becoming one of the top para-swimming athletes in the nation.
Tsujiuchi's 49-year-old mother Nobuko explained that is was thanks to Tsujiuchi's education environment and the presence of her friend Morishita that she was able to accept her disability relatively fast. There were students with intellectual disabilities in the care programs at her elementary school for children whose parents are away from home in the daytime. A classmate during third and fourth grade was attending class in a wheelchair. "Everyone got along equally well with those who had disabilities, and they pushed the wheelchair together," Nobuko stated.
Morishita, a friend since high school, had told her of the wonderful aspects of para-swimming. She was also introduced to other competitive swimmers with visual disabilities. Tsujiuchi smiled as she said, "Honestly, the only assumption I had toward people with disabilities was that of a gloomy image, but I have come to know many interesting people through para-swimming."
In 2002, one year before Tsujiuchi and Morishita entered elementary school, children with disabilities were allowed to attend schools for abled-bodied students, which were appropriately equipped. The children in that generation have relatively been near to people with disabilities.
Seiichi Sakurai, a director with the Japanese Para-Swimming Federation, pointed out that, "Disabilities are better understood when such people are nearby," and hopes for a society that can smoothly accept people that have acquired disabilities, with increasing interactions between those with and without impairments.
(Japanese original by Taro Iiyama, Sports News Department)