Being blind is nobody’s choice, but for Japanese swimmer Keiichi Kimura the decision to break into the world of competitive swimming — and go one further by aiming for gold at the Paralympics — was entirely his.
Going to the Rio Paralympics, which starts Wednesday and runs until Sept. 18, the 25-year-old swimmer has high hopes of achieving his goal after he won silver at the London Paralympics in 2012.
He was then a senior student at Nihon University competing in his second Paralympics, and snared the silver medal in the 100-meter breaststroke and the bronze in the 100-meter butterfly.
“I got the bronze and silver in London, so I will do my best for gold in Rio. I will persevere in my race until the end,” Kimura told reporters in August.
It was his and his fellow swimmers’ last open training session in Tokyo before heading to Canada for pre-Rio conditioning.
Kimura, who became blind at age 2 due to proliferative vitreoretinopathy, a retinal disease, and has no memory of seeing anything, took up the sport when he was 10 at his mother’s suggestion. He made his international debut in Kuala Lumpur in 2006.
His first taste of meeting world-class athletes was at the 2008 Beijing Paralympics. Then a third-year high school student, he entered five disciplines, placing fifth in the 100-meter breaststroke and 100-meter freestyle, and sixth in the 100-meter butterfly.
Pressure is a constant burden for able-bodied competitive swimmers, particularly Olympic athletes, but the challenges facing visually impaired swimmers like Kimura — such as swimming in a straight line — add to that. How does he handle it?
“Pressure can’t be helped,” said Kimura. “Unfortunately, it is there wherever I go and even when I am on a holiday.”
The 171-cm-tall Shiga native is classified as S11, the category for athletes with the most serious disabilities. He and his fellow competitors must wear blackout goggles to ensure there is no light perception, providing a level playing field.
“After the London Paralympics, I was able to train so much more, in terms of quantity and quality. Compared to four years ago, my training environment and coach have changed, and my overall swimming strength, power and stamina have improved,” he said.
After London, where he was the flag-bearer for the Japanese team at the opening ceremony, Kimura started training under Tomohiro Noguchi, a former Japanese record holder in the 400-meter freestyle and Nihon University swimming team coach with a track record of having fostered Olympic athletes.
Under Noguchi’s tutelage, Kimura trained to strengthen not only his upper body but his lower body and improve his stamina.
Kimura appears well-conditioned for Rio, where he is expected to show his mettle in both the 100-meter breaststroke and butterfly. He will also compete in the 200-meter individual medley, and 50-meter and 100-meter freestyle events.
“My aim in the breaststroke event is around 1 minute and 10 seconds, and exactly 1 minute for the butterfly,” he said.
In the IPC Swimming World Championships in Glasgow, Scotland, in July last year, he came first in both the 100-meter breaststroke and butterfly events and became one of the first to earn a spot in Japan’s national team for the Paralympics.
Among the challenges Kimura faces is how to maintain stamina and speed throughout the race, especially in the latter part when tiredness can get the better of him. Swimming at least two to three hours a day, the Tokyo-based Kimura’s training regimen includes weight training, bicycle workouts and swimming with a 30-kg weight.
Staying straight in the lane is a common challenge for blind swimmers, and even someone as experienced as Kimura can still make the mistake of entering a different lane.
For Paralympic swimmers, going off course and bumping into the lane rope is allowed — the rope assists in putting them back on course when they are veering — but a mere few seconds often determines victory or defeat.
The role of the “tappers” is crucial as they serve as the athletes’ lifeline. A tapper’s job entails standing at either side of the lane and touching swimmers on the head or shoulder with a pole with a ball-shaped sponge attached on the end to signal that it is either time to make a turn or end the race.
If tapping is not timed well, it could cause injuries to swimmers since they are swimming at full speed.
One of Kimura’s tappers is Masato Teranishi, one of his former coaches in his early years. Teranishi says his relationship with Kimura is based on trust.
The 41 medals won by the Japanese national team at the recently concluded Rio Olympics has raised public expectations of a similar achievement at the Paralympics, with a target of 40 medals, including 10 gold, twice the haul in London.
Despite lackluster ticket sales, Kimura and his team aim to raise the bar in their performances with an eye toward the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics.
One of Kimura’s main competitors is U.S. swimmer Bradley Snyder, whom the Japanese swimmer lists in his official Paralympic profile as his “biggest rival” and “hero.”
Snyder, a former U.S. Navy officer who lost his sight on a battlefield in Afghanistan, won gold in the 100-meter freestyle and 400-meter freestyle in London.
When asked about the prospect of defeating Snyder, Kimura said: “It’s not only him. All the athletes who are on the starting podium are rivals. The most important thing is to have strong faith in myself.”