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Sporting Nation

Queen of the Wheels

Wakako Tsuchida was the first Japanese athlete to win gold medals at both the Summer and Winter Paralympics. She describes the path to her achievements and her dedication to winning a gold medal at the upcoming 2016 Summer Paralympics in Rio.

The scene: the 2012 London Summer Paralympics. The event: the women’s wheelchair marathon. At the 24-kilometer mark, Wakako Tsuchida’s racer—a specialized wheelchair used in track and road races—crashes, eliciting screams from the audience. Many watching recalled the heartbreaking accident that befell Tsuchida at the Beijing Summer Paralympics in 2008.

However, what Tsuchida thought at that moment was, “I’m okay, I’m not injured, I can keep going.” Her athletic experience pushed her to rise again. Witnessing Tsuchida’s indomitable spirit, the crowd gave a loud cheer. “I will never forget those cheers,” she says.
Japan’s first athlete to win gold medals at both the Summer and Winter Paralympics, Tsuchida is also the world record holder in the wheelchair marathon, having broken the certified world record for the first time in twelve years in October 2013. Forty-one years old this year, she’s had an athletic career spanning more than two decades.

Tsuchida sustained spinal damage in an automobile accident at the age of seventeen. Wheelchair-bound and searching for a way to reintegrate into society, she was introduced as part of her rehabilitation to the sport of ice sledge racing, in which athletes use poles to propel themselves across the ice while remaining in a seated position. A foreign instructor acknowledged that Tsuchida had talent, and she was participated in the 1994 Winter Paralympics in Lillehammer, Norway, but suffered a crushing defeat. An accomplished athlete as a young girl, Tsuchida experienced world-class athleticism for the first time, and she burned with ambition for a medal. “I’m going to make a place for myself through sports,” she told herself.

After training furiously for the 1998 Nagano Winter Paralympics, Tsuchida won long-sought gold medals in both the 1000 meters and 1500 meters, establishing a world record in the 1500. “As long as you have a disability, anybody has a chance to win in disabled sports, meaning there is a wide range of opportunities,” observes Tsuchida, reflecting upon her experiences. “But you still need to work hard, and to be on that medal stand requires much more than a superficial effort.”

Having achieved great results in ice sledge racing, and confident in her endurance, Tsuchida decided to take on the challenge of wheelchair racing. Track and field events—the prime attraction of the Summer Paralympics—boast a large field of athletes. The speed of wheelchair racing also attracted Tsuchida. She recalls her first Summer Paralympics at Sydney in 2000: “I acutely realized the difference between being on the ice and being on the track. The scale of it all and the huge size of the crowds were both intense and scary, but my feelings of joy at being there were even stronger.”

In 2004, at the Athens Summer Paralympics, she finally won summer gold in the women’s 5000 meters, becoming the first Japanese athlete to do so at both versions of the Paralympics.
When asked what she considers to be the highlight of her racing career, Tsuchida replies, “There are way more regrets.” A dyed-in-the-wool challenger, she is not content with past honors. After experiencing major life events with her marriage and the birth of a child, she trained as if her life depended on it for the 2008 Beijing Summer Paralympics, but was badly injured in a major crash in the 5000-meter event.

Having overcome those struggles, Tsuchida had a high-profile role at the 2012 London Summer Paralympics as the first-ever female captain of the Japan Paralympics team. But she remains hungry. She has her sights set on the Rio Summer Paralympics in 2016, seeking that elusive race that satisfies her and a Paralympic gold medal in the wheelchair marathon.

Asked about Japan’s Paralympians, Tsuchida comments: “Sports such as swimming, goalball and wheelchair tennis—along with a growing number of capable young athletes—are gaining attention, but we still have to raise our standards.” She expresses hope that hosting the 2020 Tokyo games will bring increased interest in the Paralympics in Japan.

“Hearing the crowd cheer you on provides great energy for an athlete,” Tsuchida notes. “Overcoming all the hard training and injuries, and arriving at that moment when you achieve something—I wouldn’t trade that joy for anything. Disabled athletes cannot do it alone, though. They need the support of their team and their family. We have people to share our joy with, and that’s why we can keep going.”

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