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Maya Nakanishi and Shunsuke Itani land deals to endorse prosthetic limbs

by Kaz Nagatsuka

STAFF WRITER

Top amputee athletes Maya Nakanishi and Shunsuke Itani feel like they have gotten a boost to aim high with one year to go until the Tokyo Paralympics.

The two, both of whom compete in track and field, signed product sponsorship contracts with Iceland’s artificial limb maker Ossur last month.

Nakanishi and Itani are now part of “Team Ossur,” which consists of top-class Para sports athletes from around the world who are expected to be the faces and role models for the Reykjavik-based firm. The team includes some of the best Paralympic athletes, such as British sprinter Richard Whitehead, who has won three Paralympics medals, and Rudy Garcia-Tolson of the United States, who has earned four Paralympic medals in swimming.

Nakanishi, one of the most famous Japanese Para sports athletes who has competed in three straight Paralympics since the 2008 Beijing Games, described the signing as “so huge” in order for her to accomplish her goal of collecting a Paralympics medal, which she has yet to obtain.

“When I compete at international meets, it’s natural for others to have four, five artificial legs,” Nakanishi said at the contract signing ceremony at the Iceland Embassy in Tokyo. “But I’ve had only one because I could not afford it. So if it had broken or had some kind of trouble, I couldn’t have continued to compete after that.”

With the backing of the established company, Nakanishi will no longer have worries about her gear as she will be expected to be provided with more prosthetic limbs designed especially for her.

Nakanishi, who lost her right leg in an accident at work when she was 21, has used Ossur products for years but they were ones she purchased on her own and not specifically made for her.

Nakanishi highlighted the importance of equipment for Para-sport athletes, which can be overlooked by the public. With Ossur’s support, Nakanishi said that she would now be able to adjust to her equipment, helping her perform closer to her best.

The T44-class long jumper is based in her hometown in Oita Prefecture and trains with her own team (she’s the only athlete on it). She said that “everybody on my team has high expectations” with the support from Ossur going forward because they have “been patient” with their limited budget.

At age 33, Nakanishi acknowledges that she is no longer a young athlete. But Nakanishi, who captured bronze in the long jump at the 2017 world championships in London and gold at last year’s Asian Para Games in Jakarta, positively believes that her performances would “only improve” with better equipment ahead of the Tokyo Paralympics.

“It’s the responsibility for a lot of Japanese athletes to aim for gold medals at Tokyo,” said Nakanishi, who holds the Asian record in the long jump at 5.51 meters and looks to compete in the 100 meters at the 2020 Games as well. “But I would like to set an even higher goal to win one with a world record so that I will be able to give impact to children that come to the stadium who chase their own dreams.”

Meanwhile, Itani is still newer to his current sport than Nakanishi and seems to have great potential for improvement.

The 24-year-old lost his right leg in a motorcycle accident when he was a university student in Aichi Prefecture in 2016. Perhaps because the athleticism he developed through multiple sports like baseball and kendo had helped him, Itani collected a gold medal in the 100 meters at the Asian Para Games last October, less than a year after he legitimately started sprinting. In Jakarta, the T64-class runner set an Asian record in a 100 heat (11.70).

Itani is far from satisfied with the status quo. This year, he hopes to improve his personal best by over half a second and at least make the 100 final at the World Para Athletics Championships in Dubai, so it would give him a legitimate chance of shooting for a medal at the Tokyo Paralympics.

“I’m looking at 10.8 to 10.9 seconds. It’d be great if I can run in 10.7 so that I can compete for a medal,” he said of his objectives toward the Paralympics.

Like Nakanishi, Itani had used Ossur products and said he feels like he can run as if he does so with his own leg with the company’s equipment.

Itani has practiced with top Japanese sprinters Ryota Yamagata and Chisato Fukushima at the Keio University Hiyoshi campus in Kanagawa Prefecture as well. Itani, who also hopes to compete in the 200 at the Paralympics, said that he has earned “so much inspiration by just watching them practice.”

Growing up in Mie Prefecture, Itani became a fan of a motor sports. He attended Formula One’s Japanese Grand Prix races and watched Michael Schumacher and Takuma Sato compete in person. Itani dreamed of becoming a racer himself.

He began racing in a cart when he was a university student. He then competed in an amateur passenger car endurance race before the aforementioned motorcycle accident.

Did he abandon his desire to compete?

No, he has not.

Although he is fully devoting himself to track and field these days, Itani wants to eventually put on a helmet and drive his machine in a professional circuit.

“When I retire (from track and field), I would like to compete in motor racing as my next step,” Itani said. “I’ve always loved motor racing. My life has changed because of a motorcycle accident.

“But hopefully, I can educate about the importance of barrier-free environments to motor sports, of traffic safety, of driving cars being handicapped, and things like that (as a professional driver).”