Three medalists are aiming to sweep the podium in the men’s Alpine skiing sitting category when the Paralympic Games kick off in Pyeongchang, South Korea, in less than 100 days.
Japan’s gold medalists from the Sochi Games — Takeshi Suzuki and Akira Kano — are on course to defend their titles, while the consecutive overall World Cup champion, Taiki Morii, is looking to claim Paralympic gold for the first time. The Pyeongchang Games will run from March 9 to 18.
Together they have earned 11 medals — four gold, three silver and four bronze — in the past three Paralympics but are gunning for a gold rush this time out.
“The only title missing from my career is the Paralympic gold,” said Morii, who will be competing at his fifth Paralympics. “It is a title I want at any cost, and it is something I need in my career. So I’m doing everything I can.”
Para Alpine skiing, which has been held since the first games in 1976, will consist of five disciplines — downhill, super-G, super combined, giant slalom and slalom.
Athletes in the seven-day event at Jeongseon Alpine Center are classified into three categories — visually impaired, standing and sitting — depending on the nature of their disabilities.
“People often ask me why I haven’t won a gold medal yet, but if I knew the answer, I would’ve bagged a few by now,” the 37-year-old Morii said recently.
The Tokyo native damaged his spinal cord in a motorcycle accident at 16. Doctors told him he would never walk again. But watching Japan’s first Winter Paralympic gold medalist Kuniko Obinata compete at the 1998 Nagano Games from his hospital bed gave Morii hope that he might be able to laugh again if he took part in the sport. He purchased his first sit-ski after he was discharged and started practicing the following season.
At the Sochi Games in Russia in 2014, Morii was expected to bring home his long-awaited gold as captain of the Japanese delegation. But the best he could finish was runner-up in the super-G, fourth in the slalom and seventh in the giant slalom.
“After the Sochi Games, I thought Japan will be swept away and buried by foreign athletes and fail to be the fast team that we’ve always been,” Morii said. “That’s when I thought I need to improve my equipment.”
So he decided to help develop a new sit-ski and train harder, focusing mainly on cardio. Practicing and competing with Suzuki and Kano, however, allowed him to really break new ground.
“We improve through friendly competition. It’s like we generate a chemical reaction every time we practice together,” Morii said. “If it was only me, or only Takeshi, I honestly think that there wouldn’t be fast athletes in Japan.”
Suzuki, however, thinks Morii deserves more credit.
“Japan became a strong team because Morii-san led the way,” the 29-year-old said in a separate interview. “We’re rivals but also a family, and we work together to become faster.”
Flashing a boyish grin, he added: “It’s about time (Morii) got his gold medal. It’s difficult for us to go for the gold when he doesn’t have one yet.”
At the 2014 Games, Suzuki topped the podium on March 13, 17 years to the day after he got run over by a dump truck, resulting in the amputation of both legs.
Much has changed in his life since Sochi, but the biggest change may have been getting married last year.
“She cooks healthy, well-balanced food so it helps me through the season,” Suzuki said of his wife, Kyoko. “I sometimes feel tense and anxious before competitions, so it means so much to have someone I can talk to.”
“Who do I want to dedicate the medal to? I have no choice but to say ‘my wife,’ ” he joked.
Suzuki said he does not feel any pressure to defend his slalom title.
“The Sochi Paralympics are over, so I don’t pay much attention to winning back-to-back titles. But I still want a gold medal,” said Suzuki, who took bronze in the downhill.
Kano, who won two gold medals at Sochi and one in Vancouver, British Columbia, now has a goal that takes precedence over winning gold.
“I originally had two goals — a Paralympic gold medal and to raise the value of para sports — and I’m putting more emphasis on the latter,” said Kano, who sustained spinal cord injuries in a traffic accident when he was in elementary school.
“If I defend my title at Pyeongchang, I think I can bring excitement to the sport and then the younger generation can follow,” he said.
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