Kazumi Nakayama had always been an athlete, but the disability she developed later in life made her a more determined one and opened the doors to a world she had never imagined.
Nine years after a critical injury to her spine left her legs paralyzed, the 33-year-old wheelchair racer has earned herself a ticket to Rio de Janeiro and will be taking part in the Paralympics for the first time.
Nakayama appears to have found a degree of comfort in her discomfort, and does a good job hiding any challenges behind her trademark smile.
“Of course I felt miserable when I found out I would be confined to a wheelchair. I was only 23,” Nakayama said in a recent interview.
“Anyone in my situation would be. But I was pretty good at switching my emotional gear. I told myself what’s done cannot be undone, and decided to move on.”
The tragedy occurred while surfing in Hawaii. It had only been a year since Nakayama, a former high school basketball player, started her career as a flight attendant, just when life seemed to be a butter-smooth ride.
Nakayama suffered a spinal stroke that caused paraplegia, and was left stranded on the tropical island chain for two weeks until her relatives found a hospital in Japan that would accept a patient with her condition.
Though she did not undergo surgery, Nakayama spent the next six months on a hospital bed battling frustration, during which time she considered every possible way to get out of the medical environment.
Once she got the green light from her doctor, she bought a car, moved out of her aunt’s house and decided to try living on her own.
“Of course my parents were worried but I did it anyway. I have to admit, I had my moments where I would suddenly get sad and wonder why it had to happen to me. But now I enjoy the freedom of living alone,” she said.
“I have goals to focus on, so I don’t have time to think of negative things now. It’s not fun to be in the blues,” she added.
One of Nakayama’s goals had been to take part in the Paralympics. She is now only a step away from achieving her goal — one that slipped through her fingers four years ago when she was left off the national team for the London Paralympics despite meeting the qualifying standards.
“I wasn’t selected because they didn’t have enough slots. But I wasn’t ready at that time, so I don’t think I would’ve been able to put on a good show anyway. I spent the next four years waiting for my next opportunity, and here I am,” she said.
Over the last few years Nakayama has competed in various world-class meets, including the IPC Athletics World Championships in Lyon (2013) and Doha (2015) and the Asian Para Games in Incheon (2014), and even served as the flag-bearer at the IPC Athletics Asia-Oceania Championships in Dubai in March.
With her international experience, Nakayama feels confident that she is now in a position to contend for a medal at the Paralympics in Rio.
“When I decided to become a wheelchair racer, that’s when I decided to aim for the Paralympics. If I’m going to do it, I might as well aim for the top, right?”
The other reason Nakayama is excited to compete among the world’s best athletes is because she doesn’t have rivals in Japan.
When she shifted from wheelchair marathon, a sport introduced to her through a physical therapist, to track and field in 2011, there were few Japanese women competing in the T53 disability classification in the short and middle distances.
She easily broke the national records in the 100, 200, 400 and 800 meters, and soon enough she was not competing against others, but against herself.
Although she would welcome the challenge of a rival any day, Nakayama understands the barriers to wheelchair racing.
“People think it’s a strenuous sport, and it actually is. It also costs money to buy a racing wheelchair, and if you’re oversized you may not fit into a racer and that would be discouraging,” she said.
A racing wheelchair costs a minimum of ¥300,000, and that could be reason enough to say no, explains Nakayama.
She started out by renting the three-wheeled vehicle, which usually weighs between 5-8 kg, and it took a while until she became capable of riding on a racer without assistance.
While she continues to be dominant in the world of women’s wheelchair racing domestically, Nakayama says she likes to run alongside men “just for fun” in marathon events from time to time, like she did in the Tokyo Marathon in February.
In her personal life, she is without a partner, but enjoying flexible working hours in her eighth year as a full-time “salaryman,” a luxury she was not granted until recently.
Today, she works in the general affairs department at Accenture, a global management consulting, technology services and outsourcing company, about three days a week, and spends the rest of the week at the gym or on the track.
Nakayama will be competing in three disciplines — the 400 and 800 meters in the T53 class, and in the 1,500 meters in the T54 class.
“I’m both nervous and excited. Everyone tells me the Paralympics is special, so I’m looking forward to finding out what that means. I’m curious to see for myself what I can do there.”