The pain disappeared like a lie.
At the Rio Paralympics in 2016, one of the most-watched Japanese athletes was wheelchair tennis player Shingo Kunieda. Having won the singles gold medal at the previous two Games – Beijing in 2008 and London in 2012 – Kunieda was looking forward to a three-peat. His high expectations seemed justified, as he’d won his fifth calendar-year Grand Slam the year before.
There was, however, more to the story. “The pain in my right elbow from an injury I suffered prior to the London Games returned. I had an operation before I competed in London and the pain disappeared. But the pain persisted after the operation I had before Rio.” It shot through his elbow each time he hit the ball. “Though I declared that I was going for the gold, I actually wanted to make it easier for myself and withdraw from the games.”
Despite his misgivings, Kunieda did compete in Rio. He turned to painkillers, which he considered a last resort, recalling, “The pain disappeared like a lie.” But even without elbow pain, his movements were compromised because the injury had not yet healed. “When I review the videos, I think I played terribly,” he admits. Kunieda made it as far as the men’s singles quarterfinals and came away with a bronze in men’s doubles.
“To be honest, as I watched the finals and a new champion being crowned, I felt strongly that I would have been there had it not been for my injury.” Yet this difficult loss sparked a new sense of purpose within him. “Losing gave me the opportunity to start over, not as a champion with a reputation to protect, but as a true challenger.”