Maya Nakanishi is one of Japan’s most promising track and field
athletes. She just missed the podium at Beijing and is now on her
way to London.
She has spent years training, competing or earning money in a
bid to continue the cycle.
To get that extra edge, she left Japan – where she holds the
national records in her class for the 100- and 200-meters and long
jump – three years ago to chase her dream at the U.S. Olympic
Training Center in Chula Vista, Calif., with track and field great
Al Joyner, the 1984 Olympic triple jump gold medalist.
Those who are close to Nakanishi say her ambition, dedication
and energy are on par with any Olympian they have ever known.
”She is amazing. She’s a great athlete,” Joyner said. ”Her
dedication is totally different.”
Ask any Japanese who she is, however, and you are almost certain
to draw a blank stare.
Until you mention that calendar.
The one in which she posed naked.
Back in February, Nakanishi was flipping burgers at a McDonald’s
in her hometown in southern Japan. Since her U.S. visa doesn’t
allow her to hold a regular job there, she was using her three
months in Japan to squirrel away as much money as she could for the
Sports have never paid her bills.
She was a standout tennis player in high school. And against her
parents’ advice, she put off college so she could pursue her
ambitions in the sport, and ended up working odd jobs to support
herself. When she was 21, that meant cleaning the rust off
construction materials at a paint factory.
Work was backing up, and everyone was under orders to step up
the pace. She was bent over rubbing a chemical cleaner on a steel
beam when she heard a strange sound, like a big wave coming toward
her. She felt a strong jolt, then an incredibly sharp pain. A crane
operator had dumped a 5-ton load where she and another employee
Five hours later, she had to make a decision.
Her right leg, below the knee, had to come off.
She would spend the next seven months living in a hospital.
Nakanishi, who is 27, never liked track and field much. She was
a doubles player, and it was the teamwork that most appealed to her
in sport. Track seemed almost selfish in its focus on individual
After her accident, she tried to return to the tennis court. But
it wasn’t the same. She knew she wouldn’t be able to play at the
same level. More than that, though, she just felt out of place.
”It was really shocking to me,” she said. ”I felt like no one
Athletics was different. There were people like her, races
specifically for amputees. She could compete – and that was what
she was driven to do. So she gave it a try.
In 2007, she entered her first major competition. She shattered
the national records in the 100 and 200 for athletes with
below-the-knee amputations. The next year, she was representing her
country at the Beijing Paralympics. She set a national record again
in her 200 semifinal.
”I couldn’t keep my focus for the final because I was so
excited,” she said.
Leaving her family and friends behind, and speaking almost no
English, she moved to California to work with Joyner the following
It was an eye-opening experience.
”When I was in the U.S., I felt so funny because I was training
with Olympic athletes. In Japan, you can’t do that,” she said. ”I
felt like I’m a real athlete. In Japan, with handicapped people,
many people think we can’t do anything.”
She decided she wanted to change that.
McDonald’s was a paycheck, but it wasn’t nearly enough.
Not only did Nakanishi have to pay for her training and living
expenses in San Diego, she was planning out a 55-meet touring
schedule for the coming year. Whatever prize money she won would be
sucked away by hotel bills, airplane tickets and food.
She had to skip the 2011 World Championships in New Zealand
because she couldn’t afford to go. And all the training and
competing was taking its toll on her prosthetic, which she uses as
her plant leg when she jumps.
Ideally, she would have two spares. But at 1 million yen
($10,000) apiece, she didn’t have that kind of money.
She made the rounds. From a marketing perspective, she has a lot
going for her – she’s young, attractive, gregarious and an
”I went to so many companies to talk about sponsorships,” she
said. ”They really want to have a relationship with Olympic
She got no takers, but she had one other idea.
It took some convincing, but she had asked Takao Ochi, a
Japanese photographer known for his work with handicapped athletes,
to take photographs of her in the nude. The photos, put together in
a calendar, were about to go on sale through Amazon.
It was a gamble.
”There are people who think this is the worst thing for a woman
to do,” she said. ”Many handicapped people don’t want to show
their handicapped part. But if I show my prosthetic, many people
are interested in that. I have to show my everything. I wanted to
say, `You’re so beautiful, you’re so gorgeous, I love you guys just
the way you are.”’
The photos were mostly black and white, and not unnecessarily
revealing. In one, she lies naked, her eyes closed and her head
resting on her outstretched arm. Her prosthetic is accentuated in
Nakanishi guessed there would be some negative feedback from the
national track and field federation, perhaps, or from that larger
element of Japanese society that frowns on anything that doesn’t
conform to a conservative view of acceptable behavior.
The other possibility, of course, was that no one would care.
For a couple of months, the calendar looked like it was going to
sink without a ripple.
Then a Japanese newspaper ran a story about it. Bloggers started
blogging. It went viral on the Internet. Within a few weeks, all
3,000 copies had sold out. Nakanishi was flooded with supportive
emails from all over the world and ”likes” on her Facebook
She was the talk of the town.
A light summer rain is just starting to fall.
About an hour before her race, Nakanishi shows up at the stadium
and finds a sheltered corner where she can be alone and stay dry.
She rolls up her training pants and takes off the prosthetic leg
she uses for everyday walking around. She replaces it with her new
custom-designed, black and red racing blade.
”I got it just in time for this meet,” she said.
She loses her 100 final, but has already made the Paralympic
team and is upbeat. She likes the new leg and – for once – she’s
not scrambling for money. The calendar earned her about 5 million
yen ($50,000). It was such a success that another 4,000 copies are
Still, the stands are almost empty.
With the Olympics drawing near, Japan has been inundated with
coverage of its able-bodied medal contenders. But Nakanishi’s
celebrity has for the most part worn off.
Japan has moved on.
”It’s hard to get people to care,” she said. ”They don’t want
to think about us.”
She hangs around for a while to chat with the other
Oscar Pistorius, the South African double amputee who will be
racing in the 400 meters at the Olympic, is on everyone’s mind.
Pistorius, known globally as the Blade Runner, has done what
everyone in this meet has dreamed of – shown he can compete with
the best able-bodied runners in the world.
Nakanishi harbors Olympic dreams of her own. In practice, she
says, she has jumped 6 meters, enough to make the Japanese women’s
team. Joyner says he thinks that should be her next goal.
”I really want to be the next Pistorius, for sure,” she
Questions have been raised about whether Pistorius’ prosthetics
– which are much lighter than a human leg – actually give him an
unfair advantage, allowing him to stride faster without as much
Nakanishi struggles with that argument. Maybe, she says,
although she also suggests that anyone who feels that way should go
ahead and cut off their leg.
”Nobody would do that,” she said. ”All we want is to be
included. We are athletes, we are not handicapped athletes. That’s
how we want people to think about it.”
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