Wheelchair technicians play key role at Paralympics

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Shingo Kunieda plays in a wheelchair, with a seat made by Nakajima, on Sept. 4 in Tokyo.

The Tokyo Paralympics this summer shone a spotlight on the invaluable contribution made by wheelchair technicians, who used their superb craftsmanship to help Japan’s athletes bring home medals.

They will also be present at the Beijing Winter Paralympics in March, adjusting wheelchairs by the millimeter to suit each athlete’s disability and physique.

Paralympic tennis

The comeback of wheelchair tennis player Shingo Kunieda had vital help from Hiromitsu Nakajima, an engineer with Kawamura Group, a manufacturer of artificial limbs and braces based in Daito, Osaka Prefecture.

Kunieda finished without a singles medal at the 2016 Rio Games, and the following year he asked Nakajima to improve the seat of his wheelchair so he could “get back to the top.”

He wanted Nakajima to adjust the seat to fit his body, a new endeavor in the world of para tennis. Kunieda turned to Nakajima after hearing of his work to create such seats for Paralympic alpine sit-skiers.

Kunieda’s seat stabilized the axis of his body by holding it in place around the waist, but this also resulted in a loss of flexibility in the upper body. Advanced technology and significant experience were needed to minimize this disadvantage.

Nakajima adjusted the seat’s shape to match Kunieda’s physique, changing the hardness of the plastic material in different places to achieve a perfect fit.

“Everything is thanks to you,” Kunieda wrote Nakajima on the Line app after winning the gold medal in the Tokyo Games with his accurate shots.

“I’m proud to have supported the top player,” Nakajima said.

Nakajima is currently adjusting the seats of athletes including Akira Kano, a member of the men’s alpine sit-skiing team for the Beijing Winter Paralympics.

“Different sports require different functions, but we need to fulfill the athletes’ wishes in all of them,” Nakajima said. “I want to help athletes ski their best at the Beijing Games.”

Rugby, aka murderball

Known as murderball because of its intense collisions, wheelchair rugby has highlighted the role of the mechanics who dart around the court during games.

Kei Miyama is a mechanic for Japan’s national wheelchair rugby team — at this summer’s Paralympics, he watched the team’s games from the sidelines and rushed to change flat tires in seconds. During the bronze-medal match, Miyama’s seamless support kept the game going smoothly, helping Japan to bag the medal.

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Kei Miyama, left, sits close to wheelchair rugby players during the Tokyo Paralympics on Aug. 28.

He minutely adjusts wheelchairs’ parts before each game to keep them balanced, and adjusts the tire pressure depending on the materials used for the floor.

Team captain Yukinobu Ike puts great trust in Miyama.

“He’s a wheelchair doctor,” Ike said. “He carefully checks for cracks so I feel safe playing.”

Courtesy of Kawamura Group
Hiromitsu Nakajima, left, makes a wheelchair seat.

Miyama decided to become a wheelchair technician when he was in college. After being hospitalized due to a motorcycle accident, he was invited to watch a wheelchair rugby practice. Miyama was intrigued by the wheelchairs, which moved agilely despite numerous crashes.

In mid-October, a person visited the rugby team’s practice field and said, “After watching the Paralympics, I want to become a wheelchair mechanic.”

Miyama said, “I’m happy that more people are pursuing the same path as mine.”