When Wakako Tsuchida was a junior in high school, a life-altering car accident left her paralyzed and thrust her into a life in a wheelchair. But from there, she went on to become the first Japanese athlete to win gold medals in both the summer and winter Paralympic games. At the 1998 Nagano Winter Paralympics, she won a gold medal in the 1,500 meter ice sledge, breaking her own previous world record, and also acquired a gold medal in the 1,000 meter race and silver medals in the 100 meter and 500 meter races. Her next challenge extended to track and field, where she acquired a bronze medal in the wheelchair marathon at the 2000 Sydney Paralympic Games. The following year, she established a new world record at the 2001 Oita International Wheelchair Marathon, and then in 2004 earned a long-coveted gold medal in the 5,000 meter race and a silver medal in the marathon race at the Athens Paralympics. In April 2007, she became the first Japanese champion at the 111th Boston Marathon. She was set on winning the gold in the 5,000 meter race and the marathon race at the Beijing Paralympics, but was forced to drop out of both races due to injuries incurred from a collision accident during the 5,000 meter race. Nevertheless, she made a comeback and successfully competed in the 5,000 meter race and marathon race at the 2012 London Paralympics. Despite falling during the marathon, she finished in fifth place. In October 2013, at the Oita International Marathon, she broke the world record that she had set 12 years earlier, showing the world that she is maintaining the same high levels of performance that she displayed during her prime. She continues to compete in races around the world in pursuit of gold at the Rio de Janeiro Paralympic Games. In addition to her accomplishments in competition, she has encouraged and inspired people throughout the world as an ambassador for Tokyo’s 2020 Olympic Games bid.
I served as captain for the Japan Paralympics team at the London Paralympics. When I was offered this opportunity, my first thoughts were, "Me? Impossible!" But then I thought it over and realized that as a five-time Paralympian who has competed in both the Summer and Winter Games, the time had come for my past experiences to make a difference in a positive way. I ultimately decided to accept the offer, becoming the first female captain for the Japanese athletes at the Summer Paralympic Games.
Since athletes in different sports normally all train at different locations according to what we do, the only time we get together is during sporting competitions. I asked myself what I can do to bring together the Japan Paralympics team members within this limited period of time. After thinking about it for a while, I came to the conclusion that the answer was in communication – that communicating with as many athletes as possible at the Paralympic Village would eventually bring us closer together.
Being an athlete myself, I also thought that I could provide momentum to the Japanese athletes if I left good results in my own races. With these thoughts in mind, I tried my best to serve in my role as captain. However, my results in both the 5,000 meter race and marathon were not as I wished. Contrary to what I had thought, I was the one being helped out by the great results delivered by the medalists on the Japanese team. Another thing that helped me out and made me feel proud was the fact that I completed the marathon and didn't give up despite falling from my wheelchair. I'm sure that my determination sent out a special message to the entire Japanese team.
I knew that the marathon course at London was a technical course full of challenging points, so I checked out the course beforehand and adjusted my training based on my preview of the course. At the start line, I felt quite confident and was ready to race. I felt good after racing the first loop. However, I fell at around the 24 km point. My rivals in the top group were immediately so far away. I recall feeling panic for a few seconds, wondering how I would recover and how I could pull myself together. After somehow managing to get up, I noticed the enormous cheers from the many spectators from many different countries who were watching along the course. Encouraged by their cheers, I was back in the race. I kept repeating to myself that I wasn’t going to retire or give up, that I had to catch up, that I needed to just keep going, that I would see the finish line as long as I didn’t give up. I was probably in pain, but my adrenaline was so high that I didn’t notice it until after passing the finish line. One thing I can say with confidence is that the ability to maintain my concentration and mentality until finishing under these circumstances was definitely due to the strength and knowledge that I had gained from my 20 years in a wheelchair. But that night was a nightmare; I felt pain all over my body.