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Disabled and able-bodied athletes have long worked in harmony at the Paralympics, perfectly demonstrating the axiom “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts” and showing the future can be inclusive.

At the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics, one coxed four Japanese rowing team is out to show its mixed-gender, multiple-impairment and able-bodied parts can deliver on a whole lot of potential.

Pararower Ryohei Ariyasu, who is competing in the PR3 mixed-gender team category in the upcoming Aug. 24-Sept. 5 Tokyo Paralympics, says the event featuring a diverse group of abilities, including an able-bodied coxswain, “is like a microcosm of the society we are aiming for.”

Hiroyuki Tatsuta, 29, has been selected as cox and will take responsibility for the safety, steering and pace of the boat and its crew.

The rules of the Paralympics do not preclude able-bodied athletes from competing as coxes due to the important role they have in keeping all boats safe.

For able-bodied athletes like Tatsuta, working with Paralympians is a humbling experience that helps bring about an appreciation for para-athletes and the amount of hard work and determination it takes to be able to compete while living with a disability.

Tatsuta has teamed up with 34-year-old Ariyasu and 17-year-old Yui Kimura, rowers with visual impairments, and 49-year-old Toshihiro Nishioka and 24-year-old Haruka Yao, rowers with conditions affecting the right side of their bodies.

As with all Paralympic disciplines, to ensure a level playing field, pararowers are divided into different classes based on their severity of impairment.

The International Paralympic Committee defines PR3 as “rowers with residual function in the legs which allows them to slide the seat. This class also includes athletes with vision impairment.”

Paralympic rowing takes place on a 2,000-meter course, the same distance raced in nondisabled events, a first for the games after the distance was extended from 1,000 after the Rio de Janeiro Paralympics in 2016.

Ariyasu says building teams from athletes with prosthetic legs or other types of disability that impact their arms and legs highlights how the sport “brings these people with different characteristics together as one.”

Each team has its strategy.

The Japanese team had custom oar handles built to the athletes’ specifications in order to aim for accurate bladework and synchronicity and make up in part for the varied functional abilities.

Ariyasu, who was diagnosed with a rare eye condition called macular dystrophy in junior high school, says today he can barely detect shapes and colors.

The former judoka provides the team with endurance and power, while he relies on the voices of his teammates to understand when and how to put his efforts to work.

“We cover each other’s weaknesses,” Ariyasu says.

Tatsuta has been a rowing cox since he was in high school, and has been selected to the national team for the able-bodied version of the sport. At times, he negotiates with able-bodied rowing teams to allow pararowers to join their training.

“It’s my job to break down walls,” he says.

When the coronavirus pandemic forced a one-year delay of the Games, one of the rowers left the team, putting the crew’s participation in the Tokyo Paralympics in jeopardy.

Tatsuta quit the advertising agency that he worked for and put everything on the line to compete in the Paralympics so he could highlight the cooperation between athletes with and without disabilities. The team started afresh with newcomer Kimura.

The Japanese PR3 Mix4+ team failed to book its pararowing berth through the qualifying regatta in Gavirate, Italy, in June, and instead was awarded an invitation slot via the bipartite process.

Though the team knows it will have to overcome huge odds to get anywhere close to a Paralympic medal, the young and ambitious Kimura’s gold-medal dream is the magic spell that has proven a catalyst, at least in pulling her team together.

“I hope fans enjoy watching how this team with a unique mix of traits is able to compete as a single unit,” Ariyasu said.

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