Blind from the age of 2, swimmer Keiichi Kimura is one of Japan's leading Paralympians. Multiple medals across multiple games, the reigning world champion and even the most decorated Japanese athlete in Rio 2016 - but that Paralympic gold medal still eludes him. We talk to Keiichi about why he felt he had to leave Japan, why 5th place is sometimes better than 2nd and what he hopes to achieve in Tokyo 2020.
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Episode 14 Maybe I_m Just an Amazing Guy with Keiichi Kimura...
Tue, 3/2 1:06PM • 37:48
tokyo, japan, paralympics, japanese, training, swimming, paralympic, swimmers, coach, games, athlete, paralympic games, beijing, day, medal, london, disability, baltimore, gold medal, thought
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You never know the moment that will change your life forever and open the door to new opportunities and adventures. It can sometimes be something obvious like meeting a hero of yours a child or seeing something new on TV. But for today's guest his moment of serendipity came because he kept running into things. kg Kimora lost his sight at the age of two. And eventually his mother became so worried that he would hurt himself running into things to take into the local swimming pool where there were less things to run into. Fast forwards and Katie is now Paralympian, a multiple medal winning Paralympian and in fact, the most decorated Japanese Paralympian at the last games, he's also the reigning world champion. Despite this, we talked to Katie about why he felt he had to leave Japan, what he hopes for in Tokyo 2020 and why fifth place can feel better than second.
So can you tell us a little bit about your early life? You know, we were really active child we always trying to get into things. How was it even starting education in Japan? being totally blind?
You know, I lost sight as a two years old. I didn't remember at all when I could see I went to Brighton school as a kindergarten, elementary school high junior high and high school. Yeah, sometimes I hit the wall or tumble like that.
How do you feel you know, when you first got into the water? Was it kind of this is this is where I want to be. This feels really natural. I love being in the water.
I still remember brightly. But yeah, I've never been afraid of water. And probably I was enjoying though in the water.
How different does it feel? Because I'm the only person here who's fully sighted. So for me, there's a very big difference between being on land and being in the water. Does it feel good to you as well, when you're swimming compared to when you're walking? There's no difference between regular presser and blind person as a as a just in jumping, jumping into into the water.
This is where I have to ask stop you for one second, please. Because you're incredibly fast data and I was thinking about this. Okay, so you're totally blind. You standing on the blocks at the start of the race? Yeah. And the blocks are above the height of the water. Yeah. And you're, you know, you're waiting at the start of a race. And Martin says set and then just leap into the water without being able to see anything. I'm sure if I stood on my chair now close my eyes, even if there was no me. I'm not going to have the confidence to jump off that. So that's it's incredible to me that you can you can do that. And then swim with such perfect technique straight at that speed.
That's that's absolutely amazing.
First of all,
I can't see so I don't have fears dynamic for you. Diving at full speed into water is no different just to running full speed through the air. Right?
You can't see what's in front of you. So there's not nothing to be afraid of. Let's move on a little bit. So you you've been swimming for a while. When did you first think that you could become a Paralympian or that you wanted to swim as a professional swimmer?
Probably as a high school student or middle school student. My first international swim meet was baptised and five in the United States. It was just under 19 years old. I competed with another great swimmers. I felt like it was really wonderful and fantastic. So I thought I want to be a Paralympic swimmer someday.
You see the high school sorry when you made your first Paralympic Games in Beijing in 2008 30 of
last year of high school. So how is that as an experience you know, we were the same age when we made our first Paralympic Games I was 18 and you 18 as well.
17 years old you you
made your debut before I did and how is that as a 17 year old
archery archery I tell remember it brightly because I could say everything was amazing like there are many spectator or I get a lot of interviews. It was definitely different from other camp competitions. However, during Paralympic Games, the time had gone so quickly. I felt like I just spaced out and when I regained myself, the game was was already over.
But you you could clean really wanted you know to achieve more I think he finished fifth Didn't you in Beijing? Did that make you hungry too? Obviously you finished fifth you can see the mental positions from fifth. They make you hungry to train harder and and want more.
Ah, not really I was satisfied with that result because I got the best time in all of my races. So it is okay fifth place fifth places okay for me, then. Sure. It's
incredible if you're 17 years old and you set personal best performances in every that's that's incredible and very mature to be happy and see that as a good performance.
there when you you finish Beijing 2008 you you were a Paralympian you made the finals you came in fifth? What did you then decide to do after that? Did you think you were finished being a Paralympian? Or did you want to do more?
I want to be a medalist after that. So I decided to continue to swim.
So you came back. You finished high school? I'm guessing.
Yes. And then then go. I was going to university.
Which University did you go to?
Me Hall University.
So when we speak to a lot of Japanese athletes, the University team is really important to them. Was that the same for swimming as well? Yes. So as a as a blind swimmer, did you swim with the sighted swimmers, or did you swim separately to them?
I was swimming with able bodies, swimmers able sight swimmers,
how was that?
It was a really good time for me, because I had been training by myself or only iron coaches until Beijing. So I had thought that swimming is really boring sports. But But when I train with teammates, like everybody's I realised that team, a team is wonderful. For example, we are seeming very hard. I almost give up. But other swimmers who is next to me is still doing good effort. I can't give up or I tried to beat them. I couldn't give up so I can say teammates make me stronger, I guess. Or they could awake my power from my potential antastic
did you compete in the incarnate
Were there any competitions within the incarnate for swimmers with a disability? Yeah, at that time.
We don't have like current event for disability, unfortunately. So yeah, I heard about the UK system UK system. In the UK system, disabled swimmers can compete a national championship right now and the National Student championships. Yeah,
there are more than for sportsmen and women with disability. Yes.
Yeah, that is fantastic. Fantastic system, I guess. But unfortunately, our country doesn't have that system. So we have to sim separating competition. Actually,
it will I'm sure it will change as we go forward. And I think that's we'll come back we'll come back to talk about what Tokyo the Tokyo Paralympics might do for you know, disabilities for in Japan. But your second Paralympic Games was London. London 2012 Paralympic Games. I was working with a BBC Micro living just around the corner in East London. How was London for you? Because obviously, you tell us how you how you did in London. What were your results in London.
I was really very happy with that. Simply.
Well, how did you do? Did you get any medals?
Yes, I got two medal silver, one silver and one bronze. And then I just didn't want to get medals, whatever it takes. So I was really happy with that.
Did London surprise you? The crowds and the media coverage of the games? was it was it very different to Beijing?
A Yes. I was really surprised with huge crowds. And they cheering us even we are not representative of Great Britain. But they are cheering cheering for the other country. Athletes so it was so great experience.
I was going to ask you what the noise was like in the pool.
A build to express
is that quite difficult when you come as a as a blind swimmer. When you come out of the you know, you come out of your dive and you come up above the water and you just get with that noise is that quite difficult to deal with?
Honestly, I almost didn't hear anything in the water during I was racing. I couldn't hear anything. So just believing that everyone's cheering me.
They were I'm sure. For me, that would be really disorientating all that noise, but I think that just shows how focused you are. And yeah, you know, one silver and a bronze, you know, standing on the on the podium. That must have been an incredible experience.
Yes, it is so incredible. I thought that I was proud of
myself, rightly so you should be very proud of yourself.
Japan's very proud of you. And so one other thing that you should obviously have been proud of for London 2012 was you were the flag bearer for Japan. When you were told, you know, can you carry out the flag of Japan? Germany? How did that make you feel?
Yeah, I was so honoured when I was walking with Japanese flags. At opening ceremony. I was feeling like, really representative of home country.
I've always wanted to ask Is it is it quite heavy? Because you have to carry it for quite a while? Yeah.
Like a drink hot drink for them.
Just like a cup holder.
Exactly. Right. That guy. He was really fortunate to carry the flag for GB in Athens. And yeah, I'm glad for that drink holder. Because I'm really skinny. I couldn't have carried the flag all the way around the track. And
that makes me feel like I need to achieve a little bit more.
You You, you became very successful. After London, you know, winning World Championships in Glasgow in in 2015. You won in 2013 as well, didn't you? I think,
yes, I was 2013 as well. And I won 2015 in UK.
I read that you said your training, nearly broke your body and nearly broke down in in the four years between London and Rio. Can you tell us a little bit about your training? You know, what sort of training were you doing? And obviously you were throwing everything to try at this goal of becoming a gold medalist.
So I have training on Monday to Saturday, and Sunday day off. And 10 times in a week swimming. Every Wednesday and Saturday I'll single properties and other days like Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday day, I had double practice. I was swimming five to 6000 metres each day. Each practice. In addition to that added weight lifting twice in a week. Yeah, it was so hard.
mentally and physically. So I'm doing the math here. So you're you're swimming about 60 kilometres a week. Yeah.
Six secure Yes. 10 times. Yes. Yeah. Incredible.
So with that in mind, so we took about 14 miles of swimming and a week right? weight training. And we were used to studying.
And no, I finished my master degrees in 2014. I guess so yeah. So
last two years. 2013 2015 and 2016. I just train, I'm just training with one goal of winning gold medal in Rio and of course 2015. You're the world champion. You know, you can win and beat the rest of that. swimmers in the world. Going into Rio, did you feel a lot of pressure to form your own pressure or other people's pressure?
And both of them?
Can you talk to us a little bit about that. That real experience because you you swum incredibly well, again, you know,
I don't think so. I was not satisfied with them. I might be the most successful power athlete, but it is just because no Japanese power athlete could get a gold medal. You know, I didn't want anything except a gold medal. So I hate that memory.
To make you talk about it, but you were the most successful Japanese athletes of the real Paralympian you know, which is, which is something to be proud of. And maybe now maybe in the years to come when you look back, you may be become more happy with how incredible performances were but yeah, you could say that, but at that time,
I couldn't accept that result.
It's remarkable journey. In 2008, you came fifth and you were happy with that, because it was the best you could possibly have done. You felt you got your own personal best, and you're happy to leave that Paralympics without a medal. But eight years later, despite taking home, four medals, two silvers and bronzes, you don't feel like you did what you could do. So you're less happy. It's not for you, it's not important that you feel you should have been the best swimmer in the world at the Rio Games, and you should have taken home a bronze medal,
gold medal, my
gold medal, Oh, God,
well, let it that won a gold medal.
Okay, should we move forward from from Rio we weren't about Rio anymore. After Rio, what changed for you, personally. And in terms of swimming
until Rio, I think that even though I made an effort, as long as I could, I couldn't get my I couldn't achieve gold medal. So it means or I have to end end of our more and more to the Tokyo 2020. But next game, we'll be my home country, and I still would like to get gold medal. So still, I want to be gold medalist. And still, I would swim. I was thinking about that. And I decided to fresh fresher myself. And I want to start with new mind. That's why I was moving to the United States to train.
So how did that decision come about? Because, you know, is one thing moving to another country, when you speak the language and you have full sight and you drive a car and things are easy, and you're already a Paralympic silver medalist. In Japan training bases established, you've got your training partners, you decided to move to the USA, not speak English, and not be right. So tell us a little bit about that decision. Yep.
Simply, I was running away from Japan, I think. Because I can't train anymore in Japan, because I hate training. I hate my environment. And I can't work very hard anymore. And and you definitely
had a new environment. Didn't you move to visit Maryland? Baltimore. Right? My totally blind friends. Even me, I've got a little bit of sight, but I'm very dependent on my normal routine and my normal environment. Okay. So if I go to Tokyo, in fact, this didn't happen when I went to Tokyo for the first time on my own, and I couldn't see. And I couldn't speak the language. It was really scary, but you can't see anything. And you couldn't speak English. And yet you're like, Okay, I'm going to do this. That takes a lot of courage.
Yeah, my, my coach was saying same thing.
How did you find your training group? Did you? Do you have friends in Baltimore? Or do you just think I'm gonna go to anywhere and you put a pin in the map and Baltimore came up.
I thought, to get gold medal. I wanted to imitate gold medalist. So I tried to contact Bradley Snyder, who is a gold medalist in London and Rio. And he has the same disability as myself. I sent a message on Facebook, and he introduced his coach. In 2018. I visited I visited Baltimore, and met Brett Snyder and his coach Brian left room and I told them I want to train here with you guys. And they accepted, accepted me.
Bradley Snyder is a five time Paralympic gold medalist, I believe true. And he was a rival of yours, but he opened the door and said, Please, you know, I'm going to help you that that's that's amazing. Active sport.
Yeah, he always says we are liable. But after racing, we great friend. He always opened his door for me to get in his world
rivals with friends foot perfect. And that's what sport is is all about. Can you tell us a little bit about the challenges of moving to Baltimore, you know, just on a day to day, like I saw you're who I am video and there's a clip of you going into into the cabinet. area to get up. And this lady is going, you know, usually a beef or chicken, you know, both for us and she says, you know, would you like peas and peas? and peas, you know? And how is it on a day to day basis? Tell us tell us some of the things that were difficult for you.
Yes. As you know, everything was challenging for me. So like, at cafeteria, it was buffet style. And reception girl pick food for me. But I didn't understand what she's saying at all. See, too much bistable or too much meat, and I can't eat everything to eat or to hang out to study to train. Everything was challenging.
How long did it take you before you felt comfortable being in? in Baltimore?
Two months? I guess about two months.
That's quite, that's quite quick. It's very impressive to feel comfortable that quickly.
Yeah. Fortunately, my coach or teachers, like at language school teachers, or Japanese people who is living Baltimore helped me For example, especially to go shopping, they are driving for me, or when they come back to Japan or get in the United States. My coach drove to the airport with me. English language school teachers talk with me every day and what happened? Are you okay? Or do you have any trouble like that? I could live comfortable.
What was the main difference between the training atmosphere or environment in Baltimore than the one you left in, in Tokyo?
I guess properties mood is the most different point. Yes, the US swimmers is really enjoying hard work. But Japanese athlete is really struggling with how it works. Loving, make training easier. But even then, they are training very hard. Same as Japanese athlete. But they are always laughing and joking.
Obviously, in training in the USA, you know, rediscovering yourself, gave you some confidence and what changed? What do you think change in you as a, as a swimmer, as an athlete as a person in after you trained in the US? Basically,
I was not confident myself before going to the United States. But after I always keep confident, because in the United States, the things don't go as expected. But this experience make me stronger. So even I wasn't best condition. I just tried to do what I could at this time. That's why I won 2018 agent games or 2019 World Championships. I was not best condition, but I won't anyway, that is my mental.
I read somewhere, I think Actually, no, I think it might have been in an interview I watched with you that you said and we'll go much faster. So go Yes. I'm quite an extraordinary guy. Maybe I'm quite an extraordinary guy will be the English translation. And the reason I love that is because you will not boasting zenzi Boston about a job. It was just like, you kind of went on this journey of discovery as a person and you discovered something about yourself. And that's what sports about as well, isn't it? You know, we learn from our experiences and we grow as people,
So I really love that we're gonna use that as the title of the podcast, I think.
Can I ask a quick question about London 2019.
So London 2019 end of August is one year to go day for basic 2020 Paralympic Games. So that's why in Japan, there are many event to celebrate one year to go. So actually, I was really busy to celebrate that event. So I couldn't do enough training before World Championships in that condition. I shouldn't swim with best time. All I have to do a winning gold medal. I thought so. That's why I was satisfied with that
result. And that was in the same swimming pool as your first Paralympic medal in 2012. Yeah. Did you feel like you've sort of, you've come back as a better stronger athlete. Like I started here with my first medal. I'm back here as a world champion. Now like Tokyo is next Is my
stoplight for the Methodist. I want to say thank you for everything to that pool.
It's about 10 minutes down the road from my house. So next time I walked past, I say thank you. Following on from that 2019 medal, you must have felt quite confident of going on to Tokyo in 2020. Yes. Was there suddenly a lot of pressure from Japanese media? About your performance? Yeah,
I was in Japan with one year ago. And there was European incredible number of events celebrating, you know, one year to go to the Paralympic Games. And you're featured a lot in the Japanese media. Has that changed a lot? You know, how is that you know, you're swimming,
I believe you train in Tokyo analogy? Yes,
I am. And, and so you're right on top of where the Olympics and Paralympics are going to be, you know, every day, you're seeing, you know, the signs and everything on TV, there's constant reminders of the Olympics and Paralympics. How is that preparing in that environment?
Your many people is excited to hold, Paralympics and Barbie, my first parent big Beijing I mean, 12 years ago, a few people? no parent, because most of the people didn't know, Paralympics, but now probably all of Japanese people know the name of Paralympics. And most of people have ever seen periscope once or twice in their life. And media reporting rate media is reporting something about parasport maybe every day. So the Paralympics environment is really changing. Do you sometimes get recognised when you're sort of walking down the street
or when you're training to people come up and say hello, because they've seen you in the newspapers and on TV? Nothing really still. That will change after Tokyo dressed me up so.
So this is a difficult subject, but I've read some articles with you about in how you felt when the announcement was made to postpone the games. Yeah, tell us how you felt at that moment.
I don't blame because Olympics and Paralympics should hug in peace. We should have told it. I mean, that confusion. So I accept it possible postponement quickly?
Did you stop training? Did you What happened? Were you in the USA when the decision was taken? Or were you in Japan?
I was in Japan. So middle of March, that is it had a little bit COVID-19. So most of the restaurant and training gym has have been starting closing. So I have to go back to Japan. And after that the postponement have been decided as National Training Centre is closed, I go back to sugar my whole house and stop training for two months.
That's that's pretty hard. And in terms of I saw some video of you on an exercise bike, and training indoors. So you kept yourself in in good shape. But did you just sort of relax mentally and think, Okay, look, the game's not going to happen. I'm going to use this time now to recover and rebuild.
Right, right. At least 2020 doesn't have a competition. So I don't have to hard work in this year. I thought so. I just doing indoor weightlifting, weight training. I start swimming eventually, from June, end of June.
And how's your training now?
Now, it's the regular training I can do. Like, I am in National Training Centre, and my swimming coach from the United States. She gives me workouts every morning, and I do with other Japanese coaches in National Training Centre. And I give my swim coach feedback every night. Fantastic. And so the Japanese coaches are happily supporting the American coach. And now it is great team for me. I have coaches and Japanese coaches. So it's a great team right now.
Yeah, great international team all working towards, you know, goal of getting you on that, that top of that that podium, which we will be cheering you every step of the way.
We're now we're recording this on January 21. And so today, Thomas Bach, the president of the IOC said that the games will go ahead, there's no plan B, he's 100% committed to it. What are you? What are your hopes for the games as an event when they happen? What do you hope the games will mean?
Olympics and Paralympics will be a big festival, right? I want all of Japanese to enjoy it. And also, I really would like to host for an athlete, my teammates or my coach is excited to come my country. I am an athlete as well as a part of Japanese. So as a Japanese, I want foreign people to have a good time in my country. And it is
a beautiful country. You know, it's all our hopes and dreams that Tokyo 2021 will be that that that huge festival, would you like the Paralympics to do for Japanese society?
So in Paralympics disabled people like me can get spotlight. So able bodied people can see disability so we can tell them we are here or we are living with you in Japanese society. So everything starts from telling we are living here. So Paralympic is a stoplight for diversity. I think
what better festival of diversity than the Paralympic Games and I've been in Japan with a year to go and I think Japan is ready to host an absolutely incredible Paralympic Games. We have three recommendations or four we have four recommendations. It's been a few weeks since we recorded a podcast. Okay, I think I know the answer. But for our listeners, can you recommend somewhere that they must visit
in Japan? I totally recommend Tokyo. Tokyo is a crowded city though that everything I guess. You can buy something or you can eat whatever you want. Or you can visit traditional temple or shrine my training partner in the United States. She said the highway at Tokyo is really crazy like Mario Kart so you can see Mario Kart in a real highway.
Okay, so it's on Tokyo. I thought you meant to say she got wearing Tokyo Should we go and what should we do?
I think she is the most crowded city and Africa is the most traditional city so you can use to go Shibuya and asacs I guess
is a kind of an activity that you'd recommend our listeners trying in Japan something that they they should try to do in Japan.
Japan has a many natures we have sea or ocean River Mountain everything I we we have in summer, you can enjoy beach or ocean swimming and in winter season. You can enjoy skiing or snowboarding at Mountain and hotspring as well. So you can enjoy nature in Japan. Yeah, I
think Norman and I both lived in the more rural parts of Japan and that is one thing I really miss in my small apartment in East London is I miss being surrounded by nature and animals and natural things. Is there anywhere in Tokyo that you would say you can see nature.
It's a little bit far from Tokyo like to a No wonder what half by train. There is mountain.
I used to train in Nagano and Mike Mike's been to Nagano we've been. We've been fans of Nagano and Kamakura, and yeah, Nico. There's lots of great places around Tokyo to get away from the busy state. So the next question Mike has got to ask it's written into the law or the Japan sports stories podcast now.
It is the most important question of the entire podcast, which is can you recommend one Japanese food that everybody should eat in Japan?
I love Japanese noodles called soul bed basically we are we eat so many in summer season. We deep noodle in the soup and eat Yeah, it is so nice. When I came back to Japan from that stage I really wanted to eat so many.
So these these the cold noodles.
Yes. called noodles.
Yeah, really refreshing dipped in. I'm not sure what the soups made of is sort of kind of soy sauce base but a bit sweeter.
salty and sweet.
It's really good. When someone offered me a bowl of cold soup noodles I was a bit unsure but now I highly recommend to all men as well. Just one more quick food question in Shiga Do you have Kansai economic tea or Hiroshima opened on the Aki
Calcio Colombia key we
have no boo
so On that note that may be the final final thing we're going to ask for a view from you, Katie, first of all, one in Japanese word, phrase or saying that represents you. My favourite phrase is Chacarita, Basha Sakina say it means globe where God has planted you. Amazing. Is that you in America? Did you Bloom?
Yeah, I don't know yet. But so we are facing every day, every challenging, but we can blame everyone. So we have to accept everything. And we should do what I could right now.
That's some powerful and so important to where we are in the world today. So that that's incredible. Thank you very much. From you know, Mike and I and our listeners, thank you so much for giving us your time. Because, you know, we know how busy you are, you're training really hard. It's Paralympic year, it's getting close. So we wish you all the best with your training. Obviously, we hope things settle down in Tokyo and the rest of Japan we and the rest of the world with We hope to see you blooming on the podium.
Thank you for listening to this episode of dependable stories. We are so grateful to Haiti for giving up his time and for speaking so honestly about being a Paralympian, we really do wish him all the success in the world and hoping continues to bloom in Tokyo and beyond. If you enjoyed this episode, why not check out our previous episode with Lord Chris Holmes, a blind British swimmer and one of the main figures behind the London 2012 Paralympics, he took us on a fascinating journey about achieving Paralympic integration and what Tokyo needs to do to achieve it. Across our back catalogue. We have some fantastic Paralympians, including Tokyo 1964 Gold Medalist Kaz Walton, Grand Slam winner, YUI committee, and Japanese winter Paralympic legend mitzner Garcia. Next week, we're joined by Paralympic hypo Anthony sacrae, after a surgical error left her paralysed below the waist, and then his whole life changed. She had to leave University months before graduation, and adjust to life as a wheelchair user now, and then he's the top female wheelchair fencer in Japan, and she has her sights set on top ring Paralympic golden girl, baby to prove that she's the best in the world in Tokyo. Make sure you subscribe to hear it when it's released. And we'll see you in two weeks.