Ripple Effect Of Support Floats Golden Dream

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Naohide Yamaguchi set a world record in the men’s 100-meter breaststroke in the SB14 category at the World Para Swimming Championships last September, finishing in 1 minute 4.95 seconds. The 19-year-old rising star is expected to be in the running to win a gold medal at the Tokyo Paralympics.

Yamaguchi was diagnosed with autism along with intellectual disabilities at 3 years old, but he has been surrounded by family and friends who have supported him to fight for his dream of being the best in the world.

In January 2020, Yamaguchi competed in a New Year national swimming competition for persons with intellectual disabilities in Chiba Prefecture and set a national record for the men’s 50-meter breaststroke, while his mother, Yumi, watched from the stands.

From his hometown of Imabari, Ehime Prefecture, he would compete in various competitions nationwide, but it was difficult for him to get there by himself, so his parents would take turns shuttling him around.

“These past three years have left us in the red, but it was really fun. When we first found out he was autistic, we cried a lot. We never thought he would become a [Tokyo Paralympic] athlete,” Yumi said.

Since December 2019, Yamaguchi has been working at Shikoku Gas in his hometown. His job is inputting invoices into the computer and other administrative tasks. He has a driver’s license so he can drive himself to work or to the pool where he practices. As Yamaguchi practices for 2 hours six days a week, Yumi, who worries about him becoming too exhausted, would drop him off and pick him up.

His father, Minematsu, is the principal at an elementary school in his hometown, while Yumi is an elementary school teacher. Because both of his parents work, Yamaguchi’s grandparents prepared his meals.

Standing at an impressive 187 centimeters and weighing 85 kilograms, Yumi said it was “all thanks to grandma’s cooking.”

Yamaguchi’s whole family has watched over and supported him as he grew.

As for his swimming career as well, an understanding of his surroundings is essential.

Said Yumi: “When I talk to him, there are times where it seems like he’s only half-listening.”

According to his coach, Shoichi Kakizaki, when Yamaguchi was younger and working on endurance exercises, he would try to skip that portion of practice by going to the bathroom. At the time, he thought, “Instead of making him do something he hates, I should let him do something he likes.” So they worked on further improving his strength, which was his speed, and that led him to victory at the world championships last year.
Yamaguchi is well-aware of his impairment.

“When people think of the Paralympics, they think of people with physical handicaps. However, there are people like me who have mental handicaps. I want to be able to accept those qualities about myself while working hard and dedicating myself to competing,” he said.

Yamaguchi, as well as people around him, are hoping that his performance in the 2020 Tokyo Games this summer will help others further understand those who are mentally handicapped.

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