Explore the story of Japan’s sitting volleyball athlete Yoshihiro Iikura, a late bloomer in the world of Para sports, as he fulfils his dream of another Paralympic participation.

After losing his left leg in a workplace accident at the age of 25, Iikura discovered his passion for sports at the age of 40, initially engaging in amputee soccer before transitioning to sitting volleyball and achieving his dream of participating in the Tokyo Paralympics at the age of 46.

In this first part of the Q&A with GROWING, Iikura shared the words of encouragement from his mother that helped him overcome despair after the accident, and the transformative power of sports that nurtured a spirit of resilience.

“In the beginning, I was doing ironwork in Osaka. After the Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake, there was an increase in seismic reinforcement work at schools, and at that time, I was working on installing braces (a type of reinforcement made of iron materials) at a school when the one we were trying to lift came loose and fell on me. I had nowhere to escape, so I jumped backward, and my left leg got caught. It weighed about one and a half tons, so if I hadn’t jumped, I think I would have died. I didn’t lose consciousness at all. Even when they brought me to the hospital, I endured the pain and said, ‘Please, do something quickly.’ They showed me a photo of my leg, and because it hurt so much, I said, ‘Doctor, please cut it off.’ My eldest son was six months old at the time. I was just getting my job on track and planning to become independent in the near future, so I felt nothing but despair.”

It was your mother’s words that lifted you from despair.

“For three days after the accident, I cried constantly, only thinking about my child and wife. At that time, my mother rushed to the hospital from Kyushu. When I apologized for losing my left leg, I thought my mother would collapse in tears. But then she said, ‘What will you do if you’re so pessimistic? If you’re alive, you’ll manage somehow,’ and I felt like she slapped me on the back. I thought, ‘Yes, I can’t afford to be pessimistic.’ I had a 10-year career in ironwork since I was 15, so even though I lost my left leg, my confidence that I could somehow manage became greater than my anxiety. From then on, I worked desperately on rehabilitation.”

Iikura vigorously pursued rehabilitation and returned to work within a year.

“I was told that cutting above the knee would lead to a quicker return, but instinctively I said, ‘Please keep the knee.’ I was afraid that if I lost my knee, I wouldn’t be able to work. The rehabilitation instructor was really tough. While telling grandmas to ‘rest when tired,’ he only told me, ‘Do it’ (laughs). Even on weekends when rehabilitation was supposed to be off, I was given iron bars and told to ‘do it at home.’ But thanks to that intense rehabilitation, I was able to achieve the early return to work that I had set as a goal.”

Upon returning to work and raising four children in his private life, Iikura encounters amputee football, a sport played by individuals with upper or lower limb amputations, at the age of 40.

“I only played soccer for a year in junior high school, and I had no particular sports experience after that, just work. I wasn’t particularly interested, except that my eldest son played soccer, so I enjoyed watching it. At that time, when I went to see a familiar prosthetist to get a new leg made, there happened to be a flyer for amputee football, and I became interested in what it would be like to play soccer without a prosthetic leg, so I went to watch.”

What were your thoughts after experiencing the sport up close?

“I was initially shocked to see prosthetic legs scattered around the field. At that time, I felt somewhat ashamed to show my prosthetic leg, but I thought, ‘It’s okay to show it. Even without a prosthetic leg, you can still play sports.’ Moreover, the players were all smiling more than anything. They were sparkling with joy beyond belief. After experiencing it myself there and being invited, ‘Come again for the next event,’ I didn’t hesitate to join that team when I went back.”

If you hadn’t been involved in any sports-like activities before, it must have taken courage to leap into a new world at the age of 40.

“I still remember being told at the experience session, ‘It’s not that you can’t do it, you just haven’t tried yet. If you try, you’ll manage.’ Even without experience, if you want to try something, just go for it. That’s what I started to think. If trying something doesn’t work out, then try something else. If you keep doing that, you’ll naturally find something you enjoy, won’t you? In my case, I got hooked on amputee football from the first try. I didn’t care about my age at all. Since it was my first time trying something new, emotionally, I didn’t feel older than 20 (laughs). As I found soccer enjoyable, I got more and more into it.”

You also began to experience the thrill of competition.

“I really cried when we lost in the first tournament. Even though it was a strong team with a track record, we lost in the first round after I joined. That really lit a fire in me. I thought I would definitely win next time, so I started practicing intensively. I even got my eldest son involved in kicking the ball around. We didn’t win the championship, but we were runners-up for three consecutive years. I still feel frustrated about the game we lost in extra time. However, a few years after starting, I participated in a tournament in Hiroshima with both children and adults, including able-bodied individuals, and we won there. I was even awarded my first MVP in life, which made me very happy.”

About a year after starting amputee football, Iikura decides to challenge himself in sitting volleyball.

“One of the people I played amputee football with was a member of the Japanese national team for sitting volleyball, and he told me that there would be a talent scouting event for Tokyo Paralympics players in Osaka this time. Since amputee football wasn’t a Paralympic sport, I was quite interested. When I went to the event, I found it equally fascinating (laughs). The coach of the Japanese national team also showed interest in me. At first, I wanted to win in football, but gradually my feelings shifted towards sitting volleyball, which is a Paralympic sport.”

It’s as if you were drawn towards the Tokyo Paralympics.

“Yes, indeed. If there’s a chance you can go, there’s no choice but to challenge it, right? That’s what I thought. Even if it doesn’t work out, there’s a sense of achievement in striving for it, and if you can make it, it would be amazing. While continuing with football, I joined the Osaka Attackers to start playing volleyball seriously.

“Team practices were enjoyable, and now, being part of the national team, people from various places come together. There’s a desire not to lose, and as we strive together, we become stronger. As we gradually improve, it becomes enjoyable again. Emotionally, I feel like I’m back to being around 20 years old (laughs).”

Although my life had been devoid of sports, it became incredibly fulfilling after encountering amputee football and sitting volleyball following an injury.

“In hindsight, I wonder why I didn’t try these things sooner. The prosthetist was a really nice person and even arranged for me to meet runners with prosthetic legs and people playing baseball, but at the time, I didn’t think about trying it myself. When I saw the flyer for amputee football, I must have felt something.”

Please share what you’ve learned through sports.

“The importance of taking on challenges, definitely. I believe in eliminating the option of not trying, and if something seems good, I’ll give it a shot. It’s unpleasant to think back later in life and regret not trying something. Regardless of whether I have experience or not, I’m glad I’ve challenged myself.”

In the next part, we will delve into Iikura’s approach to his goals, his dreams for the future, and his bond with his family.

Source: https://www.toto-growing.com/16pt/interview159


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here