A visually impaired judoka whose home was damaged in the Great East Japan Earthquake has been selected to represent Japan at the London Paralympics, thanks to help from a former Olympian.
Shizuka Hangai of Iwaki, Fukushima Prefecture, lost her home and job due to last year's disasters on March 11, but has been training in Chigasaki, Kanagawa Prefecture. The 23-year-old was accepted into a judo studio there run by 1992 Barcelona Olympics silver medalist Naoya Ogawa.
Hangai started taking judo in junior high school. She joined the school judo team because she “couldn’t play sports that used balls.” She joined the world of judo for the visually impaired when she enrolled at the National University Corporation Tsukuba University of Technology, and won the all-Japan championships in her first year. Last year, she decided to continue training in judo after graduating from college so she could try for the London Paralympics. Soon after her decision, though, northeast Japan was hit by the devastating earthquake and tsunami.
Hangai’s family home was damaged in the quake, and the company that had offered to let her start working from April had to cancel the job offer due to damages to the firm.
“I didn’t have an office to report to or a home to go back to,” Hangai said of her circumstances at the time.
Her dream of making it to the Paralympics was the only thing that gave her hope. She told of her plight to anyone who would listen until an instructor at the University of Tsukuba--where she had been training--introduced her to Ogawa’s dojo.
Hangai now lives alone in an apartment she rents in Chigasaki. She does administrative work at the dojo and works as a judo instructor for children, in addition to getting instruction from Ogawa. Hangai said Ogawa’s patient instructions have helped her use her lower body more efficiently. Before she trained under Ogawa, Hangai had utilized mainly techniques involving throwing her opponent. But under Ogawa’s guidance, she added more techniques to her repertoire.
On May 27, Hangai won the final round of the Paralympic selection meet held at the Kodokan Judo Institute with a combination of her signature one-arm shoulder throw and her newly acquired skill, "harai goshi," a traditional sweeping hip throw. She won the berth to represent Japan in the 52-kilogram division.
“The Great East Japan Earthquake caused suffering to many people," Hangai said. "But to me, it also brought some new challenges and goals."
She said she enjoys watching herself get better and hopes to “keep pushing myself to my limits.”
“At the time, everyone was thinking about how to help disaster victims," Ogawa said after being asked about accepting Hangai into his gym after the quake. "I just did what I was able to do.
“Hangai still needs to have a stronger mentality during matches, but she’s in a position where her own efforts can make a significant difference in her life.
"I hope that at the Paralympics she can send a positive message to disaster victims. I hope she inspires victims in a way that only she can.”
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