Comeback as a Yachtsman Finished Third in the World at an International Championship for Athletes with Disabilities
The Kindness of Countless People Served as Driving Force
4th year student, Faculty of Letters
In October 2018, Takaya Aono (24 years old), a former member of the Chuo University Yacht Club and a senior in the Faculty of Letters, participated in the 2018 Hansa Class World & International Championships (held in Hiroshima City), an international sailing competition for people with disabilities. Aono competed for the first time and won the third prize, completing an amazing comeback after his serious injury.
Hansa is a small yacht that can be operated by a single sailor. It was so designed that children, the elderly and people with disabilities can enjoy sailing. This remarkable international race was held in Asia for the first time. Sailors raced at Hiroshima Kannon Marina on the Seto Inland Sea, an area known for its scenic beauty.
Aono was assigned the sailing number "2774" and competed in the Liberty Division for yachts with a motorized rudder. Aono won the third prize, finishing behind sailors from the Netherland. The Japanese flag was raised when he stood on the podium.
Aono was deeply moved, as were many people who knew him well. It was Aono's first major achievement since the accident that put his life in danger.
Aono entered Chuo University in August 2014. While traveling to Okinawa, he damaged his cervical spine in an accident at the beach. At one point, his very life was in danger.
The accident occurred when he was walking in shallow sea water below his knees. The next instant, he had an anemic attack--perhaps it was brought on by accumulated fatigue from the examinations for the first semester or from participating in other sailing tournaments. He fell head-first into a sinkhole in the ocean floor.
When Aono suddenly disappeared, his friends thought that he must be diving. Aono had been raised around water and was skilled at all marine sports.
A lifesaving team found him floating on the water and rushed to save him. He was resuscitated by a doctor who happened to be vacationing at the beach.
Aono was transported to the hospital and underwent emergency surgery. Treatment at a hospital, rehabilitation, time spent in a wheelchair, absence from school...his lifestyle as a 19-year-old student had changed completely.
Aono started his absence from Chuo University in the second semester of 2014 and returned to school in April 2016. He had to start over as a freshman. More than one year and nine months had passed since his serious injury.
Aono underwent rehabilitation at a hospital in Fukuoka Prefecture. A large number of sailing tournaments are held in Kyushu, so many athletes and tournament staff visited Aono in the hospital before and after races.
Naturally, the topic of sailing often arose during conversation. "At that time, I was scared of the ocean," said Aono. "I could feel my heart throb when images of the ocean were shown on TV."
Aono received repeated encouragement and his feelings gradually changed. He became able to look at the ocean again. On the day when he decided to make a comeback, the ocean was in a perfect condition. The waves seemed to be calling Aono back. "It was then that I recalled my love for the ocean," he said.
Aono's parents had enjoyed scuba diving and marine sports ever since they were students. Aono accompanied his parents when they went to the ocean and began sailing when he was in the upper grades of elementary school.
The 2017 National Athletic Meet was held in Aono's hometown of Ehime Prefecture. Aono participated in a trial lesson aimed at developing junior sailors. This experience increased his interest in sailing and he developed the desire to compete. He continued sailing throughout junior high school and high school.
When entering university, Aono was looking forward to balancing academics and sailing. He decided that Chuo University was the perfect place to pursue his passions. He joined the Chuo University Yacht Club, which practices in Hayama Town, Kanagawa Prefecture. At the time of the accident, he had acquired first semester credits for all courses taken by freshmen and had begun to display his skill at sailing club practices.
Immediately following the accident, Aono was transported to a hospital in Okinawa. He spent two months there until being transferred to a rehabilitation hospital. "At the hospital in Okinawa, I was helped by countless people," he recalls. "However, I received a lot of encouragement from one certain nurse. She was truly a wonderful person and one of the reasons that I was able to get back on my feet."
The heartfelt nursing care inspired Aono to push forward with his life.
"Although in her early thirties, she died in an accident," says Aono. "I couldn't believe it. I couldn't go to her funeral, but I went to Okinawa in order to pay my respects by praying at her altar. There is one more person who helped me during my recovery only to pass away afterwards. He was a 50-year-old man that was a patient in the same hospital room as me in Fukuoka. He always checked on how I was doing. These tragedies have taught me that life is unpredictable."
One day, Aono was contacted by another nurse from Okinawa who was going to travel to Tokyo. "I was able to dine with her," says a happy Aono. For him, it was like meeting with an old friend.
Love for Okinawa
"As time passed, I began to feel that I am capable of doing more," says Aono. "I decided to accept my situation and to take on new challenges one at a time."
Aono was living out the slogan of his alma mater Matsuyama Higashi High School--Let's Give Our Best Effort! "I finally began to focus on my studies," says a blushing Aono.
Regenerative medicine using iPS cells is becoming a reality.
"It is said that my disability will be curable in the future," explains Aono. "If I lose my motivation and give up now, I will lose my purpose as a human being even when the time comes. I will never allow myself to think that way."
"I love Okinawa," says Aono with a smile when discussing the site of his accident. His words will reassure the people and ocean of Okinawa.
Without a doubt, Aono's comeback was made possible by the endless kindness of countless individuals.
Performance broadcasted on NHK World Japan
The scene of the preliminary international championship held in 2017 was featured on NHK World, an international broadcast by NHK.
The title of the program was Disabled Yachtsman Races Again.
From yachts to sailing
In April 1999, the Japan Sailing Federation (JSAF) was formed through a merger between the Japan Yachting Association (an incorporated foundation) and the Nippon Ocean Racing Club (an incorporated association). In 2012, JSAF took the form of a public interest incorporated foundation.