Flag-bearer Kawayoke aims for medal together with his hero

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Flag bearer Taiki Kawayoke leads the Japanese delegation into the stadium during the opening ceremony of the Beijing Winter Paralympics on Friday night.

BEIJING — As flag bearer, para-skier Taiki Kawayoke led the Japan team as it marched at the opening ceremony of the Beijing Paralympics on Friday night.

Among his teammates is veteran Yoshihiro Nitta, who will be making his seventh Paralympic appearance in Beijing and has served as inspiration for the 21-year-old Kawayoke as he emerged as a contender in cross-country skiing.

Kawayoke was 9 years old when he first met Nitta, 41. Kawayoke was a member of the Toyama City ski youth team when his coach introduced him to Nitta, who had won two gold medals at the Vancouver Paralympics two months earlier.

Nitta put one of his gold medals to around Kawayoke’s neck and encouraged him to aim for the Paralympics.

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Japanese athletes march during the opening ceremony of the Beijing Winter Paralympics on Friday night.

Born missing a number of both toes and fingers, Kawayoke grew up with a fierce determination. At 13, he competed in a Para Nordic Skiing World Cup, where he was surprised by the high level of athleticism of Nitta and other competitors. It fueled his desire to compete on that level.

Kawayoke made his Paralympic debut at the 2018 Pyeongchang Games as a second-year high school student. He finished 10th in the men’s 10-kilometer classic standing event, in which Nitta won the gold. “Next time, it will be me,” Kawayoke vowed.

Kawayoke finally surpassed his hero when he finished third at a World Cup the following year. For Nitta, who placed fourth, the loss compelled him to continue competing.

“I want to see how far I can compete with him as he progresses,” said Nitta, who also decided to work on revising his form.

Against such a resolute rival, Kawayoke has dedicated himself to getting into top shape, never failing to run several hours every morning and building strength with weight training.

Kawayoke’s goal is simple. “To win medals together” with the legend who will be making the Beijing Games his last.