My Way Your Way

Making My Dream Come True


My Hopes for the Paralympic Games

Akiyama Rina (age 26, resident of Tokyo)


©Ando Risato/studio AFTERMODE

Rina Akiyama won the silver medal in the S11 class* 100-meter backstroke swimming event at the Athens Paralympics in 2004. Her event, which was not included in the 2008 Beijing Paralympics, was revived for the 2012 London Paralympics, where she won her longed-for gold medal. Today, Rina is an office worker, and she looks back on her journey to Paralympics gold.

* Competitors are divided into classes S11 to S13 depending on their eyesight and field of vision. S11 denotes an individual with almost complete impairment of vision.

Pressure-Cooker Paralympics

I was in really poor condition after finishing the qualifying heat for the 100-meter backstroke at the London Paralympics. I made it to the finals, but I burst into tears when I heard my poor time for the heat. I thought, "At this rate, I'm not going to be a contender for any medal at all. After I had bragged and said I would bring home a gold medal, what do I do now? All the hard work that I've put in will have been wasted." It was scary and really demoralizing, and the tears just welled up. After my sobs finally subsided, I felt like a deflated balloon.

When I first arrived in London I felt in really good shape and full of confidence that I could set a new world record and win the gold medal. But when I took up residence in the Athletes' Village, I came face to face with my rivals. That was really scary: it gave me nightmares. At a national meet in Japan two months earlier I had set a new world record and now for the first time in my life, I was the one that everyone was trying to overtake. That really put the pressure on me: I had been sure that the gold medal was mine in London, but now I was ready to settle for silver or bronze. I wanted to win any medal at all.

There were 8 hours between the qualifying heat and the final. I went back to the Athletes' Village, ate something, and had my limbs massaged. That's when my trainer said to me, "You've done everything you can." That brought me back and made me think, "The final is my last chance to be No. 1 in the world. All I can do is give it my best shot. If that doesn't work out, well, that's life." And on my way back to the pool, I could feel myself gearing up for the challenge.

Last Spurt for a Win

In the final, I ran into the course rope just before the first turn. Ordinarily, I would have thought "Oh, no!" and lost speed as fatigue overtook me, but this time things were different. For the last 50 meters, the only thought in my head was "Gold, gold, gold!" (laughs). I was utterly spent when I touched the finish plate, but I was satisfied that I had done everything I could. I couldn't immediately tell how I had done, and I didn't want to know; it was scary. So when someone told me I had won, it didn't sink in immediately. I thought I hadn't heard correctly, so I asked again. Again, "You won!" This time, I unconsciously threw up my arms in a victory pose.

It was quite a while later that I learned that the runner-up had been just 0.12 seconds behind me. "Whew, I certainly won that one by a hair!" I thought to myself, and I was even more pleased than when I was told I had won the race.

©Office Shashinbu Yuki Shun

At the London Paralympics. Akiyama Rina waves in response to cheering from the crowd. Her guide holds the pole used to signal swimmers for turns and when approaching the goal.
©Ando Risato/studio AFTERMODE

The Long Road to London

My first Paralympics was Athens 2004. I was 16 at the time. I won silver in my race that time, and at first I was happy about that but when I stood on the podium with the other two winners and heard China's national anthem play, my chest burned with the desire to be No. 1, to win gold.

At the next Paralympic Games, in Beijing in 2008, my event was eliminated because the pool of contestants was too small. I was stunned when I heard the news: all I could think was "Why?" But I was determined to win a gold medal, so I decided to enter the freestyle event. That wasn't my best event, but if I practiced really hard to make up for my lack of experience, I thought, quite optimistically, that I might surprise myself with what I could do. But it wasn't that easy after all. I did qualify for the Paralympics, but I realized that it was unrealistic to hope for a gold medal. So I set myself the goal of at least making it to the finals. Well, I finished last, in a field of eight participants. But I was really happy, even happier than when I won silver in Athens, because I had trusted my coach and we had worked as a real team. I was overcome with emotion when I heard that my coach had cried with joy, because we had worked hard... no, he had worked even harder than me. That was why he was so happy.

No Regrets on the Podium

After Beijing, I set new world records at swim meets in Japan and abroad. But the significance of the world records I set in Japan didn't really hit me, because those weren't world competitions. I set a new world record at an international meet, but I came in second. I analyzed why I had come in second and realized that I was losing speed on the home stretch because I was running out of steam. That's when I decided to switch to a technique that would help me conserve my strength until the end. I was able to turn in good times when I practiced, but I wasn't doing as well during actual competitions. That lasted for two years: I felt as though I was stuck in a tunnel and that I would never get out. In the end, it was a mental issue. The thought of what I would do if I didn't clock a good time was causing me to hold back, and I had to learn to stop thinking that way.

Every time I entered a meet, I was determined that it would be my last. But my time still didn't improve. I would think, "Well, maybe I'll try the next competition," and the cycle would repeat itself. Just when I started to think seriously about retiring from competitive swimming, I learned that the backstroke was back on the list of events at the London Paralympics. Frankly, I was torn, because now I didn't have a reason to retire.

Being truly No. 1 in the world means beating your rivals. So the answer to my dilemma was clear: I would swim at the London Games. I wanted to reach that winners' podium with no regrets. Working hard doesn't amount to anything if you don't show the results. Other people might make allowances for my results, but I wasn't ready to do that for myself.

Swimming became the focus of my life as I prepared for London: I knew I couldn't win if I didn't put swimming first. I practiced until I was ready to drop. I only took Sundays off, and I exercised for an hour and a half to two hours twice a day. I did weight training, and for a whole year, I did 500 push-ups, sit-ups, and back extensions every single day.

By nature I hate to lose. I knew that my life would be easier if I didn't set such a high hurdle for myself, but the lower the hurdle the less I would be able to clear even that low barrier. I knew that if I settled for less, my motivation would never strengthen, so I aimed for the top. 

©Office Shashinbu Yuki Shun

Tactile paving on the Meiji University campus guides Akiyama on her way to classes. Using her long cane, she can tell whether to continue, be cautious, or stop, as needed.

©Office Shashinbu Yuki Shun

Introduction to Swimming

My older sister went to swimming school, so I started going along from the age of three. I was a real tomboy and I think my mother was relieved, because water would at least provide some cushioning. When I was little I could beat the sighted swimmers that I swam against, but that changed when I turned about ten. I couldn't see, so I couldn't "get" how I was supposed to stroke and kick.

Around that time, my teacher introduced me to a book by Kawai Jun'ichi called Yume o tsunagu (Reaching for Your Dreams). Kawai was a medalist in the Paralympics who, like me, was totally blind. That's when I first learned of the Paralympics, and competing in the Paralympics became my goal.

Broadening My Horizons

From junior high school I went to boarding school and lived in a dorm. The school for the visually impaired near my house that I went to when I was an elementary school student had only one other student in my year, but I wanted to make lots of friends so I decided to go to the Special Needs Education School for the Visually Impaired at the University of Tsukuba, which attracted students from all over Japan. Still, it was a small place: there were eight of us in the junior high school, and there were only 17 students in the high school division.

When I was a child, I had wanted to become an English teacher, so I expected to attend university as a matter of course. Special needs schools for the visually impaired are a different world, after all, and I felt that it wouldn't be good to grow up with just the values of the visually impaired for a yardstick. As long as I was to be a member of society, I thought that it would be a good idea to get used to the wider world from the university stage of life.

I attended prep school for university entrance exams, and as it happened, I found the lessons given by the constitutional law teacher fascinating and ended up studying in the law department at university.

University is a place full of all kinds of people. There were foreign students and mature students in their 50s, and the atmosphere made me feel that as long as I was motivated I could complete my university education at any time. I realized that there are many different ways of accomplishing the same goal, and the same applies to swimming.

©Office Shashinbu Yuki Shun

©Office Shashinbu Yuki Shun

What the Paralympics Are All About

The Paralympics are not well known in Japan, and many people tend to think the Games are just a gathering for people with disabilities rather than a real athletic competition.

I first realized that people didn't view me as an athlete when I took entrance exams for university. I thought that the fact that I had won a silver medal at the Athens Paralympics would give me a leg up, but my achievement was given no weight at all. That was quite a shock. I was disappointed that my swimming career, which I had put so much effort into, meant so little, and I wondered what things would have been like if I had been an Olympic medalist. But I knew that complaining wasn't going to get me anywhere. I decided to get into university on my own merits; I had been unsuccessful on my first try and I took a year off to try again. During that time, I concentrated on studying and didn't swim at all.

The next hurdle was job-hunting. One prospective employer was blunt: "You're not an Olympic medalist, so we're not interested." But it wasn't just that one company: all of society in Japan fails to recognize the value of the Paralympics.

I also realized that people with disabilities don't know much about the Paralympics either. If they want to participate in the Olympics, that's fine, and some have actually done so, but having no options simply because you don't know about something is unfortunate.

The Olympics get blanket TV coverage, but the Paralympics make barely a splash. There aren't even many news stories about the Paralympics. I hope the Paralympics will attract a lot of media coverage and become better known.

In London, the spectators at the Paralympics were great. The venues were packed for all the events, the people clapped even for athletes not from the host country, and the cheering was ear-splitting. In Japan, there are hardly any spectators at even the biggest swimming meets, and there's no cheering, so it's really quiet. I think that's proof that the public don't consider sports for people with disabilities to be genuine sports. Seven years from now, Tokyo will be hosting the Olympic and Paralympic Games, and I hope that in the meantime the public will have learned to think of the Paralympics as real sport, just like the people in London did in 2012.

©Office Shashinbu Yuki Shun

A New World for Me

Right now I'm working for a foreign-affiliated company in Tokyo, and I've finally started living on my own, something I had wanted to do for a long time. I can cook for myself. I learned how to handle a knife in elementary school, and we had cooking classes in junior and senior high school. But the repertoire of dishes I can prepare is pretty meager (laughs).

The thing I find most difficult about living alone is filling out various forms. I can use the reader function on my computer to "read" the documents, but I have to ask office colleagues for help when it comes to writing the information.

Now that I'm working, I'm doing my bit in a world where there are lots of different people and different kinds of work. Up to now, I had thought I would like to be on the front lines, but lately I've started to feel that playing a supporting role is just fine too. Though I'm in the background, I realize that working to assist other people is a wonderful thing: that has been my most valuable discovery since I started working.

For now, my work is going smoothly, but if I encounter obstacles in the future, I think the lessons I learned during the eight years it took me to earn my gold medal will stand me in good stead.

Interview September 2013

(c)The Japan Forum