A Soulful Athlete Returns to the Track at 54
Tomoya Ito // Wheelchair Athlete
Shooting for the Top Again, Backed with the Best Team
Tomoya Ito, double gold medalist at the Beijing Paralympics and triple silver medalist at the London Paralympics, announced last summer that he was stepping out of retirement after 5 years to return to the world of wheelchair running. As a Bayer employee since February, he is now training hard for the opportunity to shine again on the track, this time at Tokyo 2020.
It Began with a Suggestion of a Custom-Built Machine
―What made you decide to get back into competition?
Ito: It all goes back to the Cybathlon in Zurich in October 2016. I took a part as the pilot of the RT-Mover, an electric wheelchair developed by Prof. Shuro Nakajima of Wakayama University who is the specialized in robotic engineering. There, I was approached by Anri Sugihara, Senior Managing Director at a company called RDS. Though I had already heard of the company, it was my first time to meet him. RDS researches, develops, and manufactures advanced products for many different fields, such includes mobility assistance, automobile racing, and even outer space. In fact, it was them who designed the sit-skis used by Momoka Muraoka and Taiki Morii at this year’s PyeongChang Winter Paralympics. Anyway, Sugihara said, “We’ll make a machine for you, so would you try running again?” It was a total surprise for me. I hadn’t run since London, yet not even worked out at all. I wasn’t even sure whether I could get my body back into racing form. After returning to Japan and having another talk with Sugihara, I decided to give it a try if three months of training got me into reasonable shape to get into serious competition again. As a matter of fact, it sounds like a dream to have a custom built machine to fully conform with my body with leading-edge technology.
―How was your return to the track?
Ito: A nightmare (grins). It took me 40 seconds to run 100 meters. That’s double my race time. But, I kept working at it and by spring 2017 I reached the point where I could build up a pretty good mark. So, I thought that I just might have a fighting chance.
Being an Employee Creates a Positive Sense of Pressure
―You joined Bayer in February. This is your first time to pursue your athletic career as a company employee, isn’t it?
Ito: Yes. There are basically two paths you can take to get by as a pro athlete. One is to receive corporate sponsorship. The other is to be employed by a company. Up to the London Paralympics my ideal as a “pro athlete” was to run on corporate sponsorship rather than become an employee of a particular company. Having come back from retirement, however, I’ve embraced the employment route as a way to get the encouragement that I need to compete. In fact, the idea of competing as an employee is rather appealing to me. Unlike the sponsored approach, being an employee means that I’m expected to use my time on the clock to start training and get myself into shape, so there’s this sense of pressure to do my job. The realization that I’m getting paid to contribute to the company gives me a stronger feeling that I can’t waste time, no matter what. What’s more, there isn’t any day that you can skip your basic workouts if you’re an athlete, but now that I’m an employee, I admit that the weekend is a refreshing little joy for me.
In Para Sports, the Athlete Becomes One with the Machine
―We hear that your new machine is getting progressed.
Ito: It’s an all-carbon design built to conform with every part of my body, so that I can be one with the machine. I don’t think the world has ever seen a racing wheelchair custom built with such precision.
―That sounds like F1 racing, where the driver skillfully operates a top-of-the-line machine so that together they can deliver their best performance.
Ito: I think that’s something you see in para sports that use machines. From my experience, I’d say that track performance is 30% athlete and 70% machine, so the wheelchair has a huge role to play. It’s a different world compared with able-bodied track and field. And, there’s another similarity with F1 racing—the various technologies and functions developed for the F1 race cars are often translated into safety improvements for regular automobiles, and this can also apply to wheelchairs. If we were to take machines out of para sports, then the evolution of wheelchairs would slow down. Take the project we’re working on, for example; If I were to reject the developers’ design simply because I was obsessed with my own style, then no advances would be made. So, I see the need for an approach where I conform my body to the machine. In that sense, the project is different from everything I’ve done before. It’s a totally new challenge for me.
One Step at a Time: First the Asian Games, then Next Year’s World Championships
―What sort of schedule do you have in mind for the road to Tokyo 2020?
Ito: Coming up this year are the Kanto Para Athletics Championships in July, followed by the Asian Para Games in Jakarta in October, so my immediate goal is to compete in both of those games. I hope that I do well enough in them to move on to the World Para Athletics Championships next year. Meanwhile, we’ll continue working on perfecting our machine. As for Tokyo 2020, the 100-, 400-, and 1,500-meter wheelchair races have been selected for the official program. I’m sure to enter the 400-meter, but I need to make a choice between the other two because they’re different battles—the 100 is all about power, while the 1,500 is a challenge of stamina. So, they require completely different styles of training. I’ll have to figure out which style I should focus on and then adjust my training menu accordingly. I’ll be turning 55 soon, which means I’ll be 57 at Tokyo Paralympic games. My body may be older, but I have learned a lot, so I’m much more mentally prepared now than ever. In the two years until Tokyo, I’m going to work hard to make solid progress in my training.
Going for the gold, but focusing on the story
Now that he’s back to the track, we ask Tomoya Ito about his life as a wheelchair racer—what got him started and what he’s doing to prepare for Tokyo 2020.
A mistaken order opens a new world
―What led you to take up wheelchair racing?
Ito: I developed multiple sclerosis in 1998, when I was 34. I had been feeling sluggish for a while, so I went to a hospital to get examined. The tests showed that I had MS and that my condition was serious—so much so that the doctor said it was a wonder that I could still walk. I checked into the hospital right away and in just one week I lost function of practically everything but my ears. I stayed that way for a few months, but eventually I started making improvements, regaining my eyesight and speech, and becoming able to move my hands again. I remained paralyzed below the waist and was still blind in my left eye, but everything else came back, so despite the anguish of my situation, I at least had the joy of making a partial recovery. As for my introduction to the world of wheelchair racing, it was a bit of a joke—it happened because I messed up my order for a wheelchair while I was in the hospital.
―You messed up your order?
Ito: That’s right. About one year into my stay, I decided to get myself a wheelchair. A salesman came by and showed me a catalog, but he wasn’t that familiar with wheelchairs. As I leafed through the catalog I thought how cool the latest wheelchairs were, and picked out a three-wheeler that wowed me the most. The order soon arrived and the man who delivered it started explaining how to use it. As I listened, it dawned on me that I had ordered a special wheelchair designed for racing. The supplier had come a long way to deliver it, so I didn’t have the heart to send it back. I ended up buying the racer, along with an ordinary wheelchair. So, it was a quirk of fate—had I mistakenly ordered a basketball wheelchair instead, I probably would be playing hoops now. Anyway, I was already a bit of a sportsman, having done some marathon running, baseball, golf, and swimming over the years, so I figured why not give wheelchair racing a try.
First half marathon ends with a last-place finish
―You put yourself through some really intense training, didn’t you?
Ito: My first competition was a half marathon along the Nagara River. Almost everyone finished in about an hour, but I came in dead last with a time of 2:41. I didn’t even know the right way to spin the wheels. Still, I had gained a goal to fight for. My doctor was totally opposed to this, but I began a daily program of two hours of strength training and 60-kilometer runs. After keeping this up for three years, I finally started finishing races at or near the top of the pack.
―What’s your current routine?
Ito: I clock in at nine in the morning by sending an e-mail to the company and work out until 5:30 in the evening. Usually, I spend the morning on the track, and fill the afternoon with strength-building workouts. Before, I used to condense these into a three-hour session, but now I take longer breaks between each type of workout. This has turned out to be much more effective than I had imagined. My metabolism has improved and I’ve gained bigger muscle mass. For my strength training, I work on each set of muscles in my arms and shoulders one by one. I get a checkup by a doctor once or twice a week and use the lactic acid numbers as a guide for adjusting the intensity of my workouts and planning out the focuses for each week. I’m blessed with an excellent training environment that allows me to do things I didn’t do before, including partnering closely with a doctor.
A machine like no other
―How’s the development of your new racer coming along?
Ito: I visit the workshop in Saitama once a month so that the project team can do precision measurement and analysis of my racing form. I imagine that a lot of people think of para sports as just an extension of able-bodied sports, but wheelchair racing is something else. Trying to design the ultimate machine is a really big challenge. The team is also working on my gloves. They’re experimenting with various materials and trying to come up with a design that fits me perfectly while minimizing drag. The design work is taking everything into account, from my posture to the subtle flexing of the machine, but it’s not just a matter of designing everything to suit me. For instance, if the designers find that a certain posture will theoretically shave air resistance by, say, just 0.2%, they’ll ask me to try to adapt to that form. This means I need to craft my body to achieve the right posture for the wheelchair so that it can deliver its full potential. Ultimately, if the completed racer can’t reach the expected top speed, the problem lies with me, not the machine. In all my past racing, the wheelchair was designed around me. Now, however, I’ve been given the back seat, so to speak. I kind of feel like I’ve been told, “Okay, you’re the engine, so you’d better crank those wheels hard” (laughs).
The medal isn’t just for me
―We bet you’re aiming for the gold at Tokyo.
Ito: As long as I race, that’s definitely a goal, but it’s different this time. In my past competitions up through London, my attitude was basically to race to score a personal victory, but as I prepare for Tokyo, I’m not fixated on just capturing a medal. Instead, I feel I need to treasure the whole process and story behind what I’m doing. After all, I’ll be competing as a member of Bayer, backed by a project team that has put its heart and soul into designing the wheelchair that will carry me. And, I’ve also had a doctor always at my side, giving me the support I need.
―Everyone at Bayer is rooting for you as a fellow member of our team.
Ito: Thanks! If I win a medal, I’ll be sure to visit the office to share the news with everyone. The support of my Bayer colleagues is a tremendous source of encouragement to me. To let you in on a little secret, I don’t have any of the medals I’ve earned. I’ve given them away to other people, such as those who helped me to get where I am, or as a prize to kids who won a rock-scissors-paper contest at one of my lectures. I’m happy just to have my name on the record books. The medal is no more than an end product—nothing beats the joy of thrilling people by winning a medal.
PROFILE // Tomoya Ito
Tomoya Ito was born in Mie in 1963. He formerly ran a temp service with over 200 employees, but retired after developing multiple sclerosis and becoming dependent on a wheelchair in 1998. In the following year he took up wheelchair racing. He began building up a string of new records and became the only para athlete to be featured at the Marathon Run Museum in Greece (2005). He captured two gold medals at the 2008 Paralympics in Beijing with record-setting performances in the 400- and 800-meter events, and added three silvers in 2012 from the 200-, 400-, and 800-meter races at the London Paralympics. He retired from wheelchair racing in 2012 but returned to the track last summer. He became an employee of Bayer Yakuhin in February.