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From Rio to Tokyo: Japanese Olympic athletes share their thoughts (Part 3)

The year 2016 has just begun, but the Summer Olympic and Paralympic Games in the Brazilian city of Rio de Janeiro will soon be upon us.

    Daichi Suzuki, the head of the Japan Sports Agency -- established in October 2015 -- asked four athletes of various ages and in various sports -- Kenzo Shirai (gymnastics), Saki Takakuwa (Paralympic sprinter), Kenta Chida (fencing) and Mima Ito (table tennis) -- about what they think about the Games and what they want to achieve in them.

    This is Part 3 of the interview. Part 1 was published on Jan. 1, and Part 2 on Jan. 2.

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    Saki Takakuwa (Mainichi)

    Kenta Chida: Fencers practice under excellent conditions, such as those provided by the Japan Institute of Sports Sciences. On the other hand, being a minor sport, we don't have a huge budget for training athletes. We have to complete events to boost our world ranking, but currently we have to finance some of the trips to compete abroad ourselves. However, someone like me, who has a company sponsoring them, can go to competitions abroad (without financing trouble).

    Saki Takakuwa: On a sign in the Japan Sports Agency was the name of an Olympic and Paralympic section, and I felt how we have finally come this far. The fact that there is a Paralympian at this gathering is also evidence that Japan has changed. But, it costs a lot of money to buy a single prosthetic leg. Young athletes have no choice but to ask their parents to buy such items for them. In a lot of cases these athletes change to a different sport when they are asked if they really want to go that far (pay that much) in order to run track and field, so not many young people come into my sport. If we want to increase the number of young athletes (running with prosthetic legs) for 2020, I think we should make it easier to get started.

    Daichi Suzuki: How about you, Ms. Ito? It must be hard to manage both school and your athletic competition.

    Mima Ito: I can stay at the National Training Center. I receive separate paper handouts so I can keep up with other students in our studies. I buy study guides on my own and manage to get by. But math is hard if you don't know the way to solve the problems, and English is hard, too. On trips to compete overseas, my coach teaches me, and I also study together with same-year student Miu Hirano (a table tennis player at the Japanese Olympic Committee's Elite Academy).

    DS: You are probably now planning on basing your future around table tennis, but I think there are also people who, unsure of how good of an athlete they can become, choose to take the safer route of studying at school and living a more typical life. You were brave and chose to go forward on this path. How do your parents feel?

    Japan Sports Agency Commissioner Daisuke Suzuki. (Mainichi)

    Ito's mother Minori: Lately I am bugging her more about her studies and becoming educated, things besides table tennis. I want to get the necessary things done, because I'm worried about what she will do after she becomes an adult. (Laughs)

    DS: There are some training facilities overseas that include support for academic studies. Sports that require you to appear in overseas competitions to gain the berth in events are tough on young people, and I want sports organizations to think about that.

    Japan is in the midst of recovering from the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami. What do you all think is the "power of sport" in these recovery efforts?

    KC: The sight of my hometown (in Kesennuma, Miyagi Prefecture, after the quake and tsunami disaster) was more than I had imagined it would be. When I saw the people there desperately just trying to get by, I felt like it might be wrong of me to be playing sports. Still, the people in my hometown cheered for me enthusiastically when I was at the London Olympics, and the kids were really happy when I won a medal. I had continued my sport without much confidence, but I ended up being glad I continued.

    ST: When my leg was amputated, it was my desire to play sports again that got me through. Every athlete has some goal that they are working toward. There is something in that goal that shines so brightly that you no longer see your disability. Even if you have a disability, that in no way means it's hard to move your body. I hope that people can use sport as a way to become forward-thinking.

    MI: I went to Miyagi Prefecture half a year after the disaster, and it was incredible, the idea that a building had been here, someone had died there. It really hits you, bit by bit. It was very tough to look at. Every year I go to Miyagi Prefecture, wanting the people to somehow recover.

    Kenzo Shirai: The year of the Great East Japan Earthquake was the year that a world gymnastics competition was held in Tokyo. Some people said it would be hard to hold the competition in Japan, but it was meaningful as support for the recovery from the quake. I haven't had a chance to go to the Tohoku region and haven't been able to offer much support, but I want (people in the disaster-hit areas) to see the wonderfulness of gymnastics. I think it's also important to think of how to keep sport from slumping after 2020 (when the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics are held).

    DS: Since sport will continue even after then, right? Just as you, Mr. Shirai, were influenced in Athens (at the Olympics there), I want you to inspire today's young people. Thank you very much.

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    Saki Takakuwa

    While a sixth-grade elementary student, Saki Takakuwa developed an osteosarcoma (bone tumor), and when she was in her first year of junior high, she had her left leg amputated from the knee down. She later started track and field at Tokyo Seitoku University Fukaya High School. At age 20 she participated in the 2012 London Paralympics where she took seventh place in both the 100-meter and 200-meter sprints. In 2015 she took bronze in the running long jump at a world competition. She also holds the Japanese record for the 100-meter dash under the T44 classification, at 13.69 seconds. Takakuwa graduated from Keio University and is affiliated with Avex. She is 23 years old and was born in Kumagaya, Saitama Prefecture.

    Daichi Suzuki, Japan Sports Agency Commissioner

    Competed in the men's backstroke in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics and the 1988 Seoul Olympics. At the Seoul Olympics he took gold in the 100-meters. He graduated from Juntendo University, then became a guest researcher at the University of Colorado Boulder and a guest coach at Harvard University. In 2007, he received a medical doctorate from Juntendo University, and in 2013 he became a professor there, as well as president of the Japan Swimming Federation. He was born in Chiba Prefecture and is 48 years old.

    (This was the final installment of a three-part series)

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