• Kyodo


Finding the right prosthetic limb allowed sprinter Sae Tsuji to optimize her on-track performance and push her forward in her quest for a Tokyo Paralympic medal.

The 26-year-old Japanese is hopeful of a return to the podium at the Tokyo Paralympics, where she will compete in races in the women's T47 class for athletes with a unilateral upper limb impairment. She is also looking to show the world that she has overcome the post-Games slump she experienced after winning T47 400 meters bronze in Rio in 2016.

The heats for the 400 will be held Friday, with the final to follow Saturday. Tsuji will also compete in the 200 on Sept. 4.

"Momentum helped me win (a bronze in Rio) when I didn't really understand what the Paralympics are all about," Tsuji said.

"Through my ups and downs, I reflected on my athletic identity and what it is that I want. Right now, I want to win a medal."

Last year, when competitive sports were paused because of the coronavirus pandemic and Tsuji's training time was limited, she took the opportunity to address the arm numbness she was experiencing, a nagging issue that was becoming more and more of a nuisance.

Tsuji, who was missing her right arm below the elbow at birth, considered her artificial arm as mostly a superficial replacement of her missing body part, albeit one that improved her balance.

Sae Tsuji speaks during a media event in April.  | KYODO
Sae Tsuji speaks during a media event in April. | KYODO

But research teams from the Nippon Sport Science University, where she works, and the Tokyo Institute of Technology discovered that her prosthetic device was causing compression of the nerves running through her arm, leading to sensory disturbances.

After replacing the standard prosthesis below the elbow with a weighted wrist band-style prosthesis strapped to her upper arm, the numbness she experienced in her arm mid-race disappeared, allowing her to better control the swing of her appendage.

She was disappointed with a seventh-place finish at the 2019 World Para Athletics Championships, a qualification meet in which the top four finishers in each event were guaranteed a Paralympics spot.

But the new prosthetic device offered Tsuji greater comfort and improved performance.

At the Japan Para Athletics Championships in April, she rewrote her own national record in a winning time that would have placed second at worlds, giving herself a last-minute ticket to the Tokyo Paralympics.

This spring, Tsuji decided to stay in college as an assistant professor in order to remain committed to her athletic endeavors, rather than pursuing full-time work.

During her performance slump, she also dealt with some personal drama concerning her divorce, but she continued to tell herself there is always light at the end of the tunnel.

She hopes the Tokyo Paralympics will be the source of that light.

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