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Fencing sisters keeping skills sharp amid pandemic, Olympic delay

KYODO

Foil fencers Sera and Rio Azuma are helping each other sharpen their skills during the coronavirus pandemic, and hoping to see big results at the postponed Tokyo Olympics next year.

The sisters returned to their parents' home in Wakayama Prefecture in late March as infections spiked across Japan. They've been fortunate in that they have been able to continuing practicing, with athletes’ training opportunities limited by the country's state of emergency declaration that was extended Monday to May 31.

Sera, 20, and Rio, 21, have pledged to "level up" their abilities while enjoying a friendly rivalry over the coming year.

The women's foil team is the only part of the Japanese fencing contingent to have qualified for the Tokyo Olympics. With core members in their teens and early 20s, the team — including the Azuma sisters — reached a World Cup podium for the first time in 12 years last December.

Yusuke Fukuda, who is in charge of athlete development at the Japan Fencing Federation, said he expects to see improvement from the siblings.

"I'm positive that young athletes can get stronger," he said.

Sera and Rio began competing at the same time, in the fourth and fifth grade respectively, though the younger sister's results have recently been better.

In 2017, Sera, then in her third year of high school, became the youngest girl to win the All Japan Championship, surpassing Rio's runner-up performance from the previous year. In November 2018, Sera placed second at a World Cup.

While standing just 157 cm, the younger Azuma delivers a sharp attack that makes use of her swift movement.

"I want to develop a precise technique so I can dodge my opponent's sword and strike after I get them off balance," Sera said.

Rio, who almost reached the international podium this season, plans to focus on her footwork during training. Both sisters have clear goals and are forging the path forward together.

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