Call me Taka   

1st September 2018

He’s the Japanese Paralympian swimmer who traded life in the Far East for a new adventure in the North East of England, and a five-time Paralympic Games medal-winner looking to retire on a high at Tokyo 2020. In conversation with Dan Sheridan, 31-year-old Takayuki “Taka” Suzuki recounts his journey so far

I don’t remember the exact age I was when I first went in the water, but I remember I could swim…

I was able to swim from a young age – probably around three or four-years-old. There was a swimming pool at the childcare facility that I used to go to where I grew up in Hamamatsu, so I would swim there.

I found I could doggy paddle (front crawl), and even though I was a bit scared at first, I got used to it. Once I’d put my head under water, things got easier.

I have always enjoyed taking part in sport…

I love swimming, but I also used to play football with shoes on my hands when I was at school, and I played baseball with my friends as well. I’d like to play those sports again, but I don’t want to get injured.

When I first started swimming, I was too young to compete. I stopped when I was 12 and didn’t go back to it until I was 16. During that time I was more interested in music, and I used to play the French horn in a brass band.

But when I went back to swimming at 16, that was the time I started competing properly in competitions. I just wanted to enjoy it, and I really didn’t expect that I’d become an international swimmer.

I was a bit surprised when I started to qualify for big events…

I’d only been back in the pool for a short time, and that was when my approach to swimming changed. I spoke to people from the National Paralympic Committee in Japan and they recommended I compete at the Japanese Championships and other major competitions.

I decided that if they thought that highly of me, then I should take it seriously and give it my best shot, and I first won a gold medal at the Japanese Championships at 16.

I always went to schools for able-bodied people, so in that setting I wasn’t a fast swimmer because of the damage to my body. I didn’t realise I was fast within my category, but I soon worked it out when I started competing. I think that’s where my journey really started.

The proper name for my disability is congenital limb deficiency…

What that means in my case is that I don’t have a right leg and my left leg is missing from around my mid-thigh. Also, my right arm ends at the elbow.

What’s interesting is that I didn’t feel like I was disabled when I was younger. I can do everything myself – I live here in the UK alone – and I didn’t go to schools for disabled people.

I was adopted by my foster mother, Yo Komatsu, when I was very young because my biological parents left me in the hospital in Shizuoka when I was born…

I’ve always wanted my foster mum to be happy and to be proud of my athletics career. That was my main motivation when I started to compete – to make her proud.

She still lives in Japan, but she came here to Newcastle for my graduation this summer even though she’s 84.

Before every big tournament, my foster mother embroiders my name and our national flag onto a towel and sends it to me…

She’s been doing it ever since I qualified for the 2008 Paralympic Games in Beijing. They bring me good luck.

She was able to come to Athens, Beijing and London to support me, but she didn’t make it to Rio in 2016. It was just too far.

I had never watched the Paralympic Games before I competed in Athens in 2004…

I always thought it was for disabled athletes, and not me. But when I took part in Athens, I realised that all of the athletes were like me.

They could do everything, and were very independent. I was so impressed and I realised I wanted to win at that level – I wanted to be at the top of the podium because of the high level of athletes.

I’m very proud to have five Paralympic medals – a silver from Athens, a gold and a bronze from Beijing 2008 and two bronze from London 2012.

My silver in Athens was for the 4 x 50-metre medley relay, and after that I was really driven to win gold in an individual event. I did that in the 50-metre breaststroke in Beijing, and I was so happy. That was the highlight of my career so far, and I can’t forget the view from the top of the podium.

I also set a new world record in the heats for that event, and that felt amazing.

I always aim to break records, and I only think about a podium finish when I’m at the Paralympic Games. That is more important than your time.

After the London Paralympic Games in 2012, I found myself in a bit of a slump and wanted to change my training environment…

My personal best in 50-metre breaststroke is 48.49, but for some reason, after London I couldn’t get under 50 seconds and I couldn’t work out why. I needed to change.

I found an amazing international swimming coach in Newcastle called Louise Graham – the head of aquatics at Northumbria University – and I asked her to coach me.

I studied English so that I could train better and Newcastle turned out to be the best place for learning English and my swimming…

What I didn’t know is that people from Newcastle have a strong accent! According to some of my friends, I’ve now got a bit of a Geordie accent, and I’m quite happy with that.

I’ve been here since 2013 and I really like it. I’d like to stay much longer and would like to come back here after the 2020 Paralympic Games in Tokyo.

I think I’ll retire after those games. They take place in my home country and I’ll be 33 by then. I don’t know if I’ll definitely stop swimming completely, but Tokyo will be my last Paralympic Games.

I graduated with a degree in Sport Management from Northumbria University this year, and I’m starting my masters in January 2019…

Ideally, when my swimming career ends, I’d like to work for an organisation relating to disability in sport.

My degree would be useful as it connects to the business of sport, and I would like to pass on what I have learned and share my experiences. Management is something that interests me, and I also want to keep fit after I retire.

I didn’t win a medal in Rio 2016, and I really want to win a medal at my home Paralympic Games in Tokyo in 2020…

I have set a target time in each event, and I will try my very best to make it happen by working hard over the next two years.

To win a medal in Tokyo would be the ultimate. I was an ambassador for the bid committee, so I already feel like I am part of it. It will be a very special event.

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Viewpoint: Jonathan Seebacher