At the age of 25, Kota Hokinoue suffered a spinal cord injury in a motorcycle accident. A friend encouraged him to begin competing in wheelchair marathons. His first race was in the half marathon division (21.097 km) at the Oita International Wheelchair Marathon in 2002. In 2006, he represented Japan at the Far East and South Pacific Games for the Disabled (FESPIC) and won a gold medal in the marathon. In 2008, he was appointed as the Sports Ambassador for Fukuoka, Japan, where he received an award from Japan’s Minister of Health, Labour, and Welfare. That same year, he competed in the 2008 Beijing Paralympic Games, placing fifth in both the 5,000 meter race and the marathon. In 2010, he set a new Japanese national record in both the 10,000 meter and 5,000 meter races. In 2011, he went on to set a new Japanese national record in the marathon event, cementing his place as a top Japanese wheelchair athlete. At the 2012 London Paralympic Games, he competed in the 5,000 meter race and also finished sixth in the marathon. In April 2013, he bested his own Japanese national record at the Seoul International Wheelchair Marathon. Following this event, he continued to maintain his high levels of performance while also starting a new training program to further enhance his speed and stamina. His efforts were rewarded in July of 2013, when he earned the bronze in the wheelchair marathon at the IPC Athletics World Championship held in Lyon, France. Kota Hokinoue is unquestionably one of Japan’s top world-class wheelchair athletes. He is now focused on winning the gold medal at both the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Paralympics and the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics.
I have always loved exercising and working out. Before being confined to a wheelchair, I was very involved in a local baseball team and also would often ride around on my motorcycle when I had the time. But just four days before my 26th birthday, I sustained serious injuries in a motorcycle crash at a motocross event. My left artery was severed in this accident and I was literally on the brink of death. Fortunately I managed to survive and was subsequently transferred to a hospital specializing in spinal cord treatments. Only a few days after being transferred, my doctor told me that I would have to live in a wheelchair for the rest of my life. At the time, I could still move my legs a little so I believed that I could go back to normal though medical treatment and physical therapy programs. I simply could not accept my doctor’s words.
But as time passed, I realized that I was not improving at all. My legs weren’t moving, and I wasn’t able to do the things I normally would be capable of doing. It was time I had to accept my doctor’s words. I was devastated. In my dark hospital room, I would hide under my blanket and cry. I felt that I had lost everything – my whole future quite simply vanished.
For some time afterwards, I remember not being able to do anything. Every day, I just felt despair.
But one day at the physical therapy center, I noticed that there were small children and elderly patients who also couldn’t move their legs. After watching them put in all of that hard work into their therapy regimes, I was finally able to accept my situation for the first time.
One day, a friend of mine named Sasahara invited me to go see a wheelchair marathon race. I went to the race without thinking too much about it. Sasahara won first place in the half marathon there, but I was even more amazed by the unbelievable speeds in the wheelchair marathon. Until then, the only wheelchairs I was familiar with were the ones for everyday use and the ones for therapy. After watching the race, I was eager to take part in wheelchair marathons. I guess that this was my turning point. If my friend Sasahara hadn’t taken me out to watch the marathon, I wouldn’t be the person I am today.
My debut race was in the half marathon division at the Oita International Wheelchair Marathon exactly 11 years ago, in 2002. There I had the privilege to meet Masazumi Soejima, one of the world’s top wheelchair athletes. He suggested that we train together if I was really serious about wheelchair racing.
When I first started training with Soejima, I couldn’t catch up to his speed at all. I was always chasing his back.
For some time, I trained every day simply from the desire to catch up to him. Then one day, I received a letter from the Japan Association of Athletics Federation for The Disabled, informing me that I had been chosen as a developmental high-performance athlete for training support. I didn’t realize it until the letter arrived, but it stated that I had broken the record of another developmental high-performance athlete during a race. Until then, I had never thought about participating in the Paralympics or other international competitions. I just wanted to be fast like Soejima and simply continued to train from the desire to catch up to him. It was as if my future had suddenly brightened.
Masazumi Soejima is my personal hero. I admire and respect him deeply. His strength during the actual race is well known, but that is not the only reason why I think of him as my role model. It is also his attitude towards competing, the hard work he puts into training, and his personality that I find compelling and inspiring. He is the type of person that I want to be in all aspects of life. If I hadn’t met him, I wouldn’t be who I am today. I would never have become as fast as I am now, and I would never have become as well-rounded as a person or athlete.
Masazumi Soejima is now over 40 but is still very much active. Heinz Frei, the current world record holder, is 55 years old but is still competing as one of the world’s top racers. I have developed in many ways as an athlete because of these distinguished athletes. I truly hope they will keep competing. Most the wheelchair athletes are paralyzed from spinal cord injuries after reaching adulthood. So, normally their performance levels start rising at around the age of 30. Wheelchair track and field is a sport in which athletes can keep growing and developing regardless of age. This is one of the great things about wheelchair marathon. During the race, there are tactical interactions among the racers. So for example, while watching the expressions and breathing patterns of the other racers, we must also consider other factors such as personal physical condition, weather conditions, wind direction, and road conditions. With all of these factors in mind, we decide when to speed up and sprint to the finish. It’s not just the speed and stamina, but also the technique, mentality, and experience in past races that make the difference in this sport.
For the sake of potential young athletes, I hope to someday become an athlete they can look up to for inspiration, just like Masazumi Soejima and Heinz Frei. In doing so, I believe that I can contribute to lifting up the standards of wheelchair sports in Japan.