In Japan, Keiichi Kimura is famous first and foremost as a medal-winning Paralympic swimmer. His grace and speed in the water is a wonder to behold, all the more because Kimura has been blind since the age of 2. His command of the sport, however, is unparalleled. At the Rio Paralympics, Kimura grabbed a total of four medals — two silver and two bronze — and in many interviews he has stated with fervor that in his next Olympics, in Tokyo, he will go for gold.
To that end, and to expand his horizons, last year Kimura made the decision to train in the U.S., at the University of Loyola in Maryland.
“I needed a change of pace and perspective,” explains the 28-year-old. “I also wanted to be able to communicate in English.”
Kimura is not alone in feeling this way. English has become an urgent necessity for Japanese athletes, as they’re pressed to give interviews to the foreign media, navigate through international competitions and train with foreign coaches.
“I’ve been going abroad for competitions since junior high,” Kimura says. “Being out of my home country is nothing new. But all these years I kept wishing I could speak English more smoothly.”
To solve the problem, Kimura had studied via Global Athlete Project, an English learning website for Japanese athletes.
“I kept at it for about a year but to really make a difference, I knew I needed to be in the U.S.,” he says.
Now, nearly six months later, he feels that the move was a success.
“The U.S. is a totally different world — it opened my mind to the possibilities of life as an athlete and as an individual.”
When he was in Japan, Kimura lived, worked and trained at a frenetic pace.
“For athletes, Japan is pretty wonderful,” says Kimura. “There’s a very solid support system for athletes and we’re blessed with wonderful training facilities.”
But having said that, adds Kimura, “I needed to break away from my comfort zone and discover new facets to my personality and athletic potential. I also needed to grow as a person, and I was sure it will have a very positive impact on my swimming.”
Maryland provided the kind of environment Kimura had been searching for, and a chance to be himself.
“The swimming is coming along very nicely,” he laughs. “But once I’m out of the pool and in the classroom or cafeteria, I’m apt to get stuck during casual conversations. Compared to English, swimming is such a breeze!”
Kimura goes by the nickname of “Kim” whether he’s in Japan or in Maryland.
“It’s simple, and people memorize it quickly,” he says. “And it’s more fun to have people call me by my nickname.”
He adds that in Japan, the attitude that athletes bring to professional development is typified by furrowed brows and aching muscles.
“But in the States, my fellow athletes are far more relaxed. They seem to enjoy themselves and have no guilt about taking breaks and vacations. It’s not that they don’t train hard — they do! But unlike the Japanese, they don’t set much store on hardship. They’d rather have fun. I find their attitude very refreshing and it’s probably effective in improving their game, too.”
Being around his American counterparts has inspired Kimura to be more relaxed himself, but at the same time, he says that “my concentration level has really gone up. There’s very little to distract me in Maryland, and I find that I could immerse myself body and soul, in both swimming and English.”
For now, Kimura says, “my goal in Maryland is to be able to keep up with everyone when we’re having a casual conversation. Communicating with my swimming coach isn’t a problem because the conversation is specific and technical, and I’m familiar with all the terms. But day-to-day English is a real challenge. I didn’t think it would be this hard. At the same time, it feels great to be part of this experience. Fortunately, everyone is happy to repeat their sentences over and over, so I can understand. They never slow down, though. Which is fine, because that way I learn more.” (Kaori Shoji)
Words to live by
木村敬一 (きむら けいいち）