A Young Rising Star Shoots for His Dreams
Hitoshi Ogawa // Wheelchair Rugby Athlete
The Start of a New Challenge
Hitoshi Ogawa—a member of the powerhouse wheelchair rugby team BLITZ and an employee of Bayer since April this year—has been selected for the candidate training program for Japan national team. He is now strengthening his skills in his new training environment as he aims for a chance to compete at the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics.
One of Japan’s Promising Young Athletes
―It looks like you’ve been enjoying some really positive experiences in your athletic career, judging from successes like BLITZ’s second-place finish in the 19th national wheelchair rugby championships last December, and your earning the 2016 Best Player Award. What’s your goal for this year?
Ogawa: I want our team to place in the top three at the national championships and to develop the talents of the new members who joined this year.
―The top three?! Why not No. 1?
Ogawa: Sure, I want us to come in first, of course. BLITZ has consistently ranked high in the national championships, and a good number of our members have served on Japan’s team. If we were to field just our seasoned players, I’m sure that we would have a very good shot at No. 1, but that would rob our young players of a big opportunity to grow. I’ve been with the team for just five years now, and I’m still one of the younger members, but from the beginning I’ve been given all sorts of opportunities to spread my wings. That’s the BLITZ way, making newcomer training an integral part of our efforts to strengthen the whole team.
―That’s interesting. What about your personal goals?
Ogawa: I want to become a member of Team Japan. Following on last year, I’ve been selected again for the training program for national team candidates this year. I’m hoping to move closer to my goal by stepping up my training and developing my skills through opportunities like the national team training camp and overseas competitions.
Search for a New Training Environment Leads to Bayer
―You joined Bayer last April. What’s the story behind that?
Ogawa: I became disabled in an accident in November 2012. I learned about wheelchair rugby the following year, as I was undergoing physical therapy. I had already enjoyed ball sports for some time, so I thought I’d give it a try. I joined BLITZ in 2014 at the invitation of a member, Shinichi Shimakawa, who still plays for the team.
―So, you joined the team as an amateur?
Ogawa: Yes, at first. Later, I became a corporate athlete with a job at a company where I worked in the office two days a week and spent all other days on training. However, I really wanted to use every day on training instead, as I’m very intense about what I do. So, I began looking around for a company that would let me devote myself full time to my workouts, and that search eventually led me to Bayer.
―And you got the sort of training arrangement you were looking for.
Ogawa: Exactly. Bayer gives me all the time I need to practice, and I’m very thankful for that.
―What impressions of Bayer did you have when you joined?
Ogawa: I’m sorry to say this, but I didn’t know much about Bayer until I joined (grins). However, I’m fully willing at learning about the company, and I’ll look for opportunities to interact with Bayer colleagues. Hopefully, I can have everyone recognize me and know a little something about what kind of person I am. And, I’d very happy if my colleagues would cheer me on.
A Sport Accessible to Even People with Severe Disabilities
―Tell us about wheelchair rugby.
Ogawa: When people hear the words “wheelchair sports,” they tend to think of track events, marathons, basketball, and tennis, but not many know that rugby is another sport that can be played in a wheelchair. One of the big differences is that people with relatively severe disabilities, such as a quadriplegic like me, can play wheelchair rugby.
―How many people are on a team?
Ogawa: Four. Players are divided into different classes depending on the level of their disability. Each class has a rating, ranging from 0.5 points for the most severely impaired to 3.5 for the least disabled. My rating is 1.0, which puts me on the severely impaired side of the spectrum. As a rule, the total rating of the four players on the court at any time cannot exceed 8 points, so you can’t field a team of just highly mobile 3.0 and 3.5 players.
―That’s fascinating. A rule like that probably makes it easier to balance the strengths of the different teams.
Ogawa: Let’s say that you put two 3.0 players on the court. That leaves a total of 2.0 points to be filled, which means you have to use two players who, like me, are rated 1.0.
―So, you could say the capabilities of 0.5 and 1.0 players have a big impact on the team’s overall performance.
Ogawa: That’s right. In a sense, it’s only natural that the job of scoring goes to 3.0 and 3.5 players, who are called “high pointers.” But you also have to think about how to engage the “low pointers” in the battle. They lack the upper arm mobility or torso strength needed to consistently make long, accurate passes, so the degree to which such skills can be enhanced through training can make the difference between a winning team and a losing team.
―It sounds like you have a big role to play.
Ogawa: I actually do. In wheelchair rugby, you can bump your wheelchair into that of an opposing player, even when they aren’t in possession of the ball. This is where low pointers like me have a key part to play, because we can use those attacks to prevent players on the other team from scoring or to help our teammates make goals. To do that, we need to be able to quickly read the offense so that we can figure out their plan of attack and decide who we should focus our defense on.
―So, you really have an important job to do.
Ogawa: Well, the mainly defensive role of low pointers may not be glamorous, but it is an important position that contributes to the team’s overall performance. And that makes it very satisfying for me.
Going for the Gold at Tokyo 2020
―You’re shooting for a spot at the Tokyo Paralympics in 2020, aren’t you?
Ogawa: Of course! I didn’t get to compete at the last Paralympics in Rio, but Japan’s team placed third after Australia and the US. I hope that Japan will capture the gold at Tokyo 2020, and that I can be one of the players who makes that dream come true. I’ve always had a big frame, so I think I have a good level of power and speed. I want to boost the speed and accuracy of my passes, so I’ll take advantage of the excellent training environment that Bayer has given me and focus on strengthening my ball handling skills. And, I hope that my many colleagues will lend me their encouragement and support!
Building Power and Speed to Reach the Top of the World
Hitoshi Ogawa was left a quadriplegic after suffering a cervical spine injury in an accident, but he says he never let his severe physical impairment get him down. Backed by the support of his friends, the young athlete has become a rising defense star in the world of wheelchair rugby.
A motocross race accident
―If you don’t mind telling us, how did you become disabled?
Ogawa: It happened back in November 2012, when I was 18. I was battling for first place in a motocross race, and I lost control because I was going too fast. I was thrown from my bike and flew through the air several meters before slamming into the ground and injuring my cervical spine. As I was being carried away on a stretcher, I noticed that one of my arms was dangling from the side, but I couldn’t pull it back up. I knew then that I was in really bad shape.
―It must have been a big shock to you.
Ogawa: It was, but I never let it get me down. You often hear stories of people who said they wanted to die after becoming severely disabled in some sudden accident, but I never felt that way.
―It sounds like you have a lot of inner strength.
Ogawa: I don’t think so. If anything, it was the support of everyone around me that helped me get through. With so many people visiting me in the hospital—my parents, friends, and motocross buddies—I didn’t have time to get depressed (grins). My girlfriend at the time would also stop every day on her way home from school. We eventually got married, but later she told me that she probably would have broken up with me if it weren’t for the accident. That was because I was a bit of a rebel who was prone to getting in fights, so I’m sure I was unpleasant to be around (laughs). Anyway, having to rely on others for assistance seems to have smoothed off my rough corners a little (smiles). After my accident, I became acquainted with many people who had overcome their disabilities to make various achievements, and they were a big source of inspiration to me. I wouldn’t be where I am now if it weren’t for the support of all those people.
A game abroad provides a lesson in differences in physique
―And so those encounters eventually led you to wheelchair rugby.
Ogawa: Yes, I learned about the sport a while after my accident, and I joined the BLITZ team in the spring of 2014. Wheelchair rugby is a sport where even people with severe physical impairments can be contributing members of the team, and it’s also a Paralympic event. From the beginning I wanted to make it to the top of the world.
―Have there been any particularly memorable games or plays in your career?
Ogawa: Yes, one of my biggest memories was when I played in my first national championships as a member of BLITZ. We were short on manpower, so I was on the court for nearly the entire match. It really wore me out. I was so exhausted that I don’t even remember how the game played out (laughs).
―You don’t recall anything but being exhausted?
Ogawa: I know it sounds crazy, but yes. Still, there have been other memorable experiences, such as my first overseas competition in 2017. I was struck by how different our physiques were from those of the players on the other team—their arms were as big as our thighs! They were also much heavier than us, so when we bumped into them for a block, we practically bounced off them. We were completely overwhelmed. However, I did happily learn that I had enough speed to compete against them, and that helped me to gain confidence.
The appeal of a sport where teams read each other’s moves
―We’d like to go to your games to cheer you on. Do you have any tips on how to enjoy watching wheelchair rugby?
Ogawa: We’d love to have you come! One of the big things about wheelchair rugby is the excitement of watching wheelchairs collide at full speed, but teamwork and strategy are also key elements of the game. The players on the court are always trying to anticipate the next move or even the one that comes after it. That means we keep trying to stay a step ahead and go on the offense or the defense in ways that give our team the advantage. In other words, every match is a mind-reading battle, where we try to predict the other team’s intentions. So, I think an interesting way to watch wheelchair rugby is to get into the mind of the players and see how Team A sets up its scoring attack and how Team B operates its defense to prevent the goal.
―So, instead of just following the ball with our eyes, we should try to follow your mental calculations and figure out why you’re making a certain move.
Ogawa: Exactly. All the players on the team are working together based on how we read the situation. I think it’s a good idea to try to get a bird’s-eye view of the whole game.
Ogawa-san’s dream: Play in the next three Paralympics
―What sort of training are you undergoing now?
Ogawa: All sorts. I practice with the team once a week, and use the other days on personal training. My mornings are spent mainly on running laps inside the gym, while afternoons are for building muscle strength by doing things like pushing a tire on its side or climbing slopes. The goal of this training is to build up my speed and power.
―You seem to be doing all sorts of training.
Ogawa: There’s more (grins). For example, I do weight training twice a week, and I also run in tight figure-of-eight laps to improve my wheelchair handling skills, such as quick turns.
―The sounds very intense. Are the wheelchairs specially designed for competition?
Ogawa: Yes. There are small wheels attached to prevent tipping, and the main wheels are angled inward to make them easier to push. However, if the angle is too big, the wheelchair becomes too wide to pass through narrow spaces, and your ability to move fast in a straight line decreases. Because of these differences, each player decides on the optimum angle for their chair. Also, the chair design differs depending on whether it’s used for offense or defense. Offensive chairs are compact so that they can make tight turns, while defensive ones are sturdier and have bigger bumpers to block opposing players. Sounds cool, doesn’t it?
―That is exciting. And the sound of wheelchairs colliding is incredible. So, what’s your goal for the road ahead?
Ogawa: I want to build up my speed, power, and passing skills so that I can become a core member of Japan’s national team. I also want to gain some weight to even the odds when playing against foreign athletes. The upcoming Tokyo Paralympic Games are of course my biggest goal for now, but I also want to take part in the next two in Paris and Los Angeles. Low-pointers like me tend to have longer careers on the court, so it’s not far-fetched to think about playing in three Paralympics.
―We hope your dream comes true. All of us at Bayer are rooting for you!
Ogawa: Thanks, and please give me your support!
What's wheelchair rugby?
Played in wheelchairs, this ball sport was conceived in Canada as a game for people with quadriplegia or similar severe physical impairment. It puts together two teams of four players each on a court of the same size as a basketball court. Each game is divided into four 8-minute periods. A special ball similar to a volleyball is used, and points are scored when a player takes the ball across the goal line. Passes can be thrown in any direction and players can attack those on the other team even when not in possession of the ball. Wheelchair rugby became an official Paralympics event with the Sydney Games in 2000. Japan’s team won the bronze at the most recent games in Rio, finishing after Australia and the US. (Information on the rules can be found on the International Wheelchair Rugby Federation’s website at http://www.iwrf.com/?page=rules_and_documents&cat=44)
PROFILE // Hitoshi Ogawa
Hitoshi Ogawa became paralyzed below the chest and in his fingers at the age of 18 when he suffered a cervical spine injury in an accident during a motocross race in November 2012. Although his severe impairments required him to use a wheelchair, they did not keep him from taking up wheelchair rugby and becoming a member of the powerhouse team "BLITZ" in April 2014. In that year the team placed second in the 16th national wheelchair rugby championships, and followed up with the crown in 2015 and a third-place finish in 2016, with Ogawa-san receiving that year’s Best Player Award. Last year he was selected for the candidate training program for Japan’s national team and took part in several international competitions. He is continuing to train intensively as one of Japan’s up-and-coming young athletes. He joined Bayer Yakuhin in April of this year.