With two years to go until the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games the stories of athletes and their preparations are starting to return to the frame.
There are few more compelling than judoka Haruka and Junko Hirose who aim to compete at their home Paralympics – as a married couple.
The pair found love through a mutual passion for the sport: “We met through judo, and as we competed in the same tournaments and got to know each other well, we were attracted to one another,” Haruka said.
Out of the two, it is Junko that has reached the highest levels of success. In two years time she will be defending the women’s up to 57kg bronze won in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 2016.
“I am very envious of the medal Junko received in the Rio Paralympics,” Haruka said, showing his naturally competitive side. But for Junko, her husband helps to inspire her: “When I see Haruka giving his all, I feel that I must do my absolute best, as well.”
The couple will also compete at the 2018 International Blind Sports Federation (IBSA) Judo World Championships in Odivelas, Portugal, from 16-18 November.
This crucial step on the road to Tokyo 2020 offers a chance to secure ranking points which will go towards qualification for the Paralympics. Junko has already tasted victory in 2018 when she won gold at the IBSA Judo World Cup in Antalya, Turkey, in April.
Whilst both Haruka and Junko want to win gold at the Worlds, they are also looking towards the long term benefits:
“I feel that the results of this competition will clarify what areas I need to modify and strengthen for Tokyo Paralympics,” Haruka, who competes in the men’s up to 90kg and was inspired to take up judo by his favourite manga character, said.
“By competing in the World Championships, I will be able to test my current strength and by finding new areas which I need to strengthen, I feel that it will lead the way to the Paralympics,” Junko added.
As they get to travel the world together they have the advantage of being able to spur each other on. That will be the same in Tokyo and the once in a lifetime opportunity to compete at home, together, will make it even sweeter.
Both Junko and Haruka agree that the Japanese public are already very excited and perceptions of people with impairments are beginning to change.
“By competing in the Paralympics, I hope that the barrier between the handicapped and non-handicapped people will diminish,” Haruka said. “Also, since recognition of Para-sports is still low compared to non-handicapped sports, I hope that this will be an opportunity to change that.”
“After the 2020 Tokyo Olympics/Paralympics have been announced, I think that the society has deepened understanding of handicapped people. I hope that by boosting the Paralympics, we can continue this atmosphere and realise an inclusive society,” Junko said.
“I hope to win a medal and would like everyone who supported me to touch the medal and share the excitement.”
The Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games
will feature 4,400 athletes who will compete in 537 medal events in 22 sports between 25 August – 6 September.
Judo will see nearly 140 athletes compete for honours in 13 weight categories.