• Olympics & Paralympics

Japan skiing legend Nitta celebrates ‘culmination of career’ at seventh Paralympics

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Yoshihiro Nitta and a fellow skier praise each other’s efforts after the semifinal of the men’s sprint free technique standing at the Beijing Winter Paralympics on Wednesday.

BEIJING — Marking his seventh consecutive Paralympics, cross-country skier Yoshihiro Nitta said the Beijing Games were the culmination of his athletic career and he was now entrusting the future of para skiing to the next generation.

Nitta, 41, finished eighth in the men’s sprint free technique standing Wednesday, his last individual event. No other Japanese athlete has matched his record of seven Games appearances.

“I’ve experienced both good and bad things [in my career], but I’ve been very happy,” he said.

Nitta was in the interview area after the event when he spotted skier Yurika Abe, 26, on the course. “Don’t give up! Keep it up!” he shouted.

Nitta won a gold and a silver at the Pyeongchang Games, making up for his medal-less performance at the 2014 Sochi Paralympics. He said at one point he had been concerned that other distance and biathlon athletes were not making it to the podium, so he became determined to teach them the skills and mindset necessary to compete on the world stage.

For the past four years, Nitta has actively encouraged younger athletes. If he felt they were not diligent enough, he would tell them to change their attitude if they wanted to win. When someone would ask for advice on how to improve their running form, he would run with them along a riverbank.

Nitta has hung on tenaciously to his position as a top performer. Believing that a true athlete takes on challenges without fear, he even adopted a new skiing style in which he kicks the ground with his toes. He says he was determined to notch up victories.

With Nitta’s help, the younger athletes steadily gained strength. But Nitta did not let up, urging them to make a final push, saying, “Do you really want to feel the same sense of disappointment you felt last time if you don’t get a medal [at the Beijing Games]?”

When Nitta confided one month before the Games that he felt too old to compete, partly because of his poor performance, Taiki Kawayoke, 21, hit back, saying, “That’s just an excuse, isn’t it?” Nitta discovered first-hand that his training had sunk in among the younger athletes.

The top-athlete baton passed from Nitta to Kawayoke in Beijing when Kawayoke bagged gold in para cross-country skiing.

Born in Nishiawakura, Okayama Prefecture, Nitta lost the lower part of his left arm in a farm machinery accident when he was 3.

He earned five medals, including three golds, at three Paralympics using a skiing style in which he holds a pole with his right hand and uses his strong core to balance himself and move forward.

Looking back over the past four years, a teary-eyed Nitta said he was happy he had been able to tell the younger athletes not to give up.

“I’ve never before cried so much at a competition,” he said. “I feel old now.”