In this second part of the Q&A with Japan sitting volleyball athlete Yoshihiro Iikura, who participated at the Tokyo Paralympics, he talks about his approach to his goals, his bond with his family, and his dreams for the future.

Starting with the motivation that “there might be a chance” for someone inexperienced in sitting volleyball to go to the Tokyo Paralympics, Iikura worked on levelling up through individual practice.

“As it happened during the COVID-19 pandemic, there were no practice facilities available. Members who were practising together in Kansai rented a cabin deep in the mountains of Hyogo and set up a makeshift court there to practise together. After finishing work, I would spend about an hour and a half to two hours going there, practising, and returning to my home in Osaka, usually around midnight. I lived like this for a year, waking up at 5 a.m. the next morning to go to work. In that sense, the one-year postponement of the Paralympics was significant for me because I was able to practise a lot. Somehow, even I, who was the worst at it, managed to become a member of the Tokyo Paralympic team.”

It must have been tough to juggle work and sports.

“After transitioning from an ironworker to a logistics company, I managed to finish work on time. Even so, I was grateful to be able to take time off when participating in international competitions. (Juggling both) is challenging, but because I feel fulfilled by sports, it gives me motivation in my job. Conversely, because the company understands my involvement in sports, I feel obligated to do well in competitions.”

How was the actual stage of the Tokyo Paralympics?

“Since I set the Tokyo Paralympics as my goal, I felt that my efforts had paid off. My family also said, ‘It’s amazing.’ The opening ceremony took place at the National Stadium amidst an empty audience, but I walked in during the parade imagining a full crowd. When introduced as ‘JAPAN,’ I felt excited and thrilled (laughs). The athlete village and meals were enjoyable, and there was no stress at all. However, being a local event, there was pressure on us to win, I think everyone felt that pressure.”

Outcome: Lost all three matches in the preliminary league. They were also defeated in the 7th and 8th place deciding match against the Chinese national team, ultimately finishing in 8th place.

“At the end of the match against China, the ball fell just beyond my outstretched hand. I couldn’t help but feel extremely frustrated, thinking I could have reached it if I had extended my hand a bit further. While I was delighted to participate in the Tokyo Paralympics, there was a prevailing sense of disappointment towards the end. You could call it indigestion, but I am practising with the belief that I will definitely pick it up next time.”

How did you feel about the difference with the other teams?

“The other teams were formidable. Especially the Iranian team was exceptional. Their attacking power is incredible, but most importantly, they don’t make mistakes. Iran has something like a professional league, and there is a large number of athletes. Japan also needs to broaden its base and elevate its standards; otherwise, the gap won’t close. We have limited opportunities to train together. Some players, like me, work, while others are professional athletes, so we have a mixed group, and we need to seriously consider how to raise the level in a short time. Foreign teams seem to have a lot of fun. Japan tends to take things seriously, but overseas, they seem to enjoy themselves and end up winning games. I’d like to take that into account as well.”

There was also talk about limited training opportunities. Are there any other challenges you feel in terms of the environment?

“Training opportunities are one thing, but since we’re doing it at our own expense, it puts a burden on our families. If these aspects can be improved, I feel that the player base, including training opportunities, will expand.”

To be able to pick up the ball that you couldn’t pick up in the game against China. At the same time as the tournament ended, new goals were also set.

“For me, it doesn’t have to be a big goal like winning a gold medal at the Paralympics. It’s about doing what I can’t do now, to be able to do it. Once I clear the small goals I set in front of me, new challenges emerge, so I keep pushing myself. I think it’s a cycle like that. Goals arise from what you desire. It’s the same in work or anything else. Once you achieve one, you move on to the next. By having that sense of exploration, I also feel positive. Having goals gives you the drive to persevere and move forward to the next step.”

Iikura is also a dad to four children. Does your family’s support also give you strength?

“My eldest son is now 23, my eldest daughter is 22, my second daughter is 19, and my youngest son is 15. Both daughters played volleyball, so I’ve had the chance to practice with them at the middle school volleyball club, and conversely, they’ve also played in matches as members of Osaka Attackers, where I’m affiliated. Although I’m often not at home due to work and sports, for a long time, it’s been like, ‘It’s totally fine even if Dad’s not around at all’ (laughs). I feel comfortable with that level of understanding, and it’s just right. However, now that my eldest son is married and living separately, there’s a bit of loneliness.

“It’s important to work towards goals, and having a family as a pillar is crucial. I couldn’t strive without the treasure that is my family’s presence. My wife still doesn’t understand the rules of volleyball at all, but she cheers for me wholeheartedly. She sometimes comes to tournaments even without saying anything. That makes me really happy. I can strive because I have my family. I’m grateful to my wife and children.”

Even though your career is short, why do you think you can maintain such a high level of motivation for sports even in your late forties?

“Age doesn’t matter. It’s because I’m engaged in something fulfilling and have clear goals. Since it’s a team sport rather than an individual one, it’s enjoyable to become stronger together. I believe that as we become stronger, we can enjoy it even more.”

Iikura also has a goal of promoting this sitting volleyball more widely.

“Many people have experienced volleyball at least once in their lives. However, I think there are still quite a few people who don’t know about sitting volleyball. The charm of this sport lies in sitting down and connecting the ball together to score points. It’s a sport where you figure out how to make the opponent make mistakes, and it requires a lot of thinking. The joy of dropping the ball on the opponent’s court is indescribable. Plus, the appeal of being able to play together with both able-bodied and disabled people is unique. You can have intense battles with separate teams of able-bodied and disabled players. Even those who are great at volleyball might think they won’t lose when they come to our arena. It’s fast-paced and powerful. I believe it should be more widely known, so I want to continue promoting it more actively as an individual.

“As a little dream of mine, I’d like it to become an event in sports competitions. If I can spread this sport to the primary and middle schools in Higashi-Osaka where I live, maybe someday they’ll want to try it. When my active career ends, I definitely want to engage in such activities.”

And, the Paris Paralympics are coming up in 2024.

“We couldn’t secure a spot in the World Cup held in Egypt. I think the final qualifiers in April will be tough, but I want to give it my all.”



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