Japan’s 14-year-old swimming phenomenon Miyuki Yamada made history Wednesday at the Tokyo Paralympics as the country’s youngest medalist, and now she says her focus is squarely on enjoying every moment in the pool.
Yamada is the youngest athlete in Japan’s 254-member team at the Tokyo Paralympics, and she captured the country’s first medal on home turf, taking silver in the women’s 100-meter backstroke S2 class.
“I am so excited, and I am so happy. And mostly, I really enjoyed it,” Yamada, a junior high school student from Niigata Prefecture, said after her race at the Tokyo Aquatics Center. “I was nervous but I tried to shrug that feeling off and just enjoy the moment. Then, I ended up being able to swim like I always do,” she said. “I want to give myself a 100 (out of 100).”
Born without both arms and with legs of different lengths, Yamada swims by kicking strongly and using the rest of her body to add to her forward momentum. She finished the race in 2 minutes, 26.18 seconds, 9.57 behind Singapore’s Yip Pin Xiu.
Yamada crossed the line over 10 seconds ahead of Mexico’s Fabiola Ramirez, who was competing in her third Games.
She became the youngest Japanese Paralympic medalist. The previous record at a Summer Paralympics was held by Yoshinori Shimazu who took bronze in the men’s athletics at the 1984 Games, according to the Japanese Paralympic Committee.
But Yamada said she did not even know about the historical context of her medal until she was asked about it during one of her post-race interviews.
“I’m so surprised myself,” she said. “I want to say that I will dedicate this to everybody who has supported me along the way, but it’s actually my mom and my coach. They told me to have fun and I want them to know that I did.”
Yamada started swimming at the age of 5 as a way to alleviate her asthma symptoms, and she still recalls considering the sport as a way to interact with children her age without feeling she was different. She has since developed an admirably healthy outlook on disability.
“I think disabilities are like individual characteristics. I just think my body happened to show my characteristics in a more obvious way,” she said.
She really started to focus on the sport after watching the 2016 Rio Paralympics on TV, moved by how the athletes were smiling in front of the cameras. She vowed then that one day she will be in that position herself.
She juggles her sporting career with her academics, studying for her high school entrance exams at home as a junior high school student. She has focused on improving her English as a way to communicate with athletes from other countries.
Her competitive career took a turn in 2020 when she made her international debut. During a meet in Melbourne in February, she was classified to the S2 class, which featured athletes with more severe disability than her previous class.
Since then, she has broken the national record in both the 100- and 50-meter backstroke and put herself on the road to the stardom she achieved on the Tokyo Games’ opening day of competition.
She does it with a single-mindedness that belies her age.
“I don’t think about other swimmers I’m competing against, because I can’t see them when I swim,” she said.
She will compete in the women’s 50-meter backstroke on Sept. 2, where she promised to become the country’s youngest-ever gold medalist.
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