Athletes Who Inspire Osaka

Athletes Who Inspire Osaka

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This page features interviews with illustrious Osaka athletes
talking about everything from their community to their dreams.
We’ll read about their sport, their experiences, and what they do for fun.
Exclusively on Sports Osaka!


Para swimming

Mikuni Utsugi[Osaka University of Health and Sport Sciences]

Mikuni Utsugi

Joining us today is para swimmer Mikuni Utsugi. She participated in the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics and won the 6th place in the 100-meter breaststroke (SB8). Currently, she belongs to the swimming team of Osaka University of Health and Sport Sciences (OUHS). She is striving toward her next goal while balancing competitive swimming with her dream of becoming a teacher. We interviewed Mikuni, who is expected to win a medal at the 2024 Paralympics in Paris.

Taking on challenges to make my dreams come true.
Para swimming is where I can shine.

Mikuni Utsugi


What made you start swimming?

My parents wanted me to play sports but ball games seemed a little difficult, so they chose swimming for me as a result of pondering over track and field or swimming. They thought I could continue swimming for many years to come and that swimming could be useful in the future. So, when I was three years old, I started attending a swimming school near my parents' house in Kyoto.

Do you remember those days?

Originally I liked playing in the water, so I quickly got used to the swimming pool and practiced swimming little by little. The instructor taught me like the other students around me and without any special treatment.
By the time I was in the third grade of elementary school, I was able to swim quite a bit, and in the fifth and sixth grades I was able to swim fast enough to compete with other people.

What did swimming mean to you at that time?

Going to swimming school once a week was like another of my after-school activities, and not a sport. I had a lot of swimming school friends, so I really looked forward to seeing them.

You encountered para swimming when you were in junior high school. What made you decide to take up para swimming?

When I participated in the Kinki qualifying tournament in my first year of junior high school, I met an acquaintance of Mei Ichinose, who is active in para swimming in Kyoto. They introduced me to the world of para swimming. Until then, I didn't know the existence of para swimming, and I had never met anyone like me who took part in competitive swimming, so I found it very appealing.

Has there been any change in your feelings since you started competitive swimming?

Originally I did track and field in elementary school. When I became a junior high school student, I switched to competitive swimming. My times were getting better and I could compete with more and more people. It became more fun to swim and compete. Anyway, I was very happy to be able to compete with people.

Is there any part of your track and field experience that has helped you in swimming?

Track and field has allowed me to improve my leg muscles and physical strength. These have become my advantages and I have been able to take up swimming with confidence. In fact, my time greatly improved at an early stage right after I started competitive swimming. I think I have been able to get good results because it’s fun to take on challenges in a new environment.

What do you find the most appealing about para swimming?

To be able to compete with people. I didn't feel it so much when I was in junior high school, but when I became a high school student, the difference with able-bodied people became more obvious. The most attractive thing about para swimming is that you can compete with people that have disabilities like yourself at the same level of time and decide who wins or not. I hate to lose, so competitive swimming is perfect for me. (Laughs)

At the age of 14, you set an Asian record at the Japan championships.
That put you in the spotlight. How was it?

My family and friends were excited, saying "You did it!", but I was actually the most surprised. At that time, I wasn't aiming for an Asian record. So when the announcement at the venue said "It's an Asian record" and the people around me said "Wow!", I didn’t know what was happening. (Laughs). My feelings were that I was relieved to be finally recognized, rather than being happy about becoming the focus of attention. It was the moment I realized that I could play an active part in the world of para swimming.

When you were in high school, you entered a slump and couldn’t get results.

My times were steadily improving, I was getting results, and I thought I was doing great. But in my first year of high school, I failed in the qualifying trials. After that I was at a loss as how to swim and my times steadily dropped. This period was the most difficult for me. It was as if I was really stuck in a bottomless swamp.
Even though I hadn’t changed the way I swam, my times had worsened. I was totally baffled as to why. But I was a little scared to change the way I swam, and I didn't know what to do.

What let you overcome that situation?

One coach gave me a suggestion that would change my swimming style drastically. It was the opposite of their usual advice. Until then, I used to raise my upper body high and swim big with my upper and lower body, but the coach told me, "You don't have to use your upper body. Just swim with your lower body and the kick of your legs." And when I did exactly that, my time suddenly started to improve. Since then, I have been able to swim with a positive attitude. I was able to turn things around thanks to the support I received, including the encouragement of the people around me.

You entered OUHS with the aim of becoming an elementary school teacher. When did you first think about becoming a teacher?

My parents were both elementary school teachers, and I’ve wanted to become a teacher like them ever since I was in elementary school. I want to be a teacher that students love and that children always rely on. I'm planning to continue swimming, but I think it would be difficult to be on the Japan national team or a candidate for the national team and be a teacher at the same time. I'm thinking of becoming a teacher after I'm no longer in that position. Until then, I would like to do my best in swimming.

You’re originally from Kyoto, but how is your life in Osaka?

I currently live alone. On my days off, I spend most of my time doing college assignments and cleaning up my room, so I rarely go out. I'm a stay-at-home person. Osaka is still an unknown world to me. (Laughs) Staying at home means I can save money because going out costs transportation. It’s not that I'm afraid to walk around the streets of Osaka. (Laughs)

Tell us about when you were selected to represent Japan in the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics.

I cleared the time standard at the national team qualifiers. The team is then selected from the top-ranking swimmers. I searched the results on the internet myself and found out. (Laughs) I was very happy when I learned that I was chosen to represent Japan, but I was also relieved. At that time, my times were going down, so I thought I might not be able to make it. That’s why I was relieved that I could finally tell good news to the people who supported me.

You placed 6th in the 100-meter breaststroke. How do you feel about this result?

It was unexpected because my goal was to advance to the final. I hadn't been able to set my new personal best for the last four years, so I thought it would be difficult to advance to the final unless I really gave it my all. I was very surprised at finishing in 6th place. The moment I saw the time, I thought, "What?!"

Do you think experiencing the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics will change your life in the future?

Yes. I think experience is very important. It was my first world-class match. My next goal is, of course, the Paris 2024 Paralympics. My advantage is leg strength, so I want to practice more, train, and build it up. I’ll train so that when I'm in Paris I can use my upper body more firmly and swim big.

Are you feeling confidence?

My coach tells me that I still have room to grow, but when I think too much, I panic and I can't swim. (Laughs) I want to clear obstacles one by one, and right now I'm only thinking about making my legs stronger.

You were given the Osaka Sports Award and the Impressive Osaka Award last fall. How do you feel about that?

I'm from Kyoto and I just belong to a team and university in Osaka. I was surprised at first because I don't have a connection to Osaka in particular. But I was very happy that my results were properly recognized, and I never thought I would receive such an honorable prize.

Did you talk to anyone at the presentation ceremony?

I'm very shy, so I couldn't talk much. (Laughs). But I was able to meet in person the medalists I had seen on TV. I will do my best to get a medal so that next time I can line up with them .

Do you have a message for fellow athletes?

I once hit bottom and managed to crawl up to this point. If you do what you love, sometimes you’ll hit a wall. But I want you to move firmly in the direction you want without giving up.
I think sports have the power to let you find your place. I was able to find a place where I could shine—swimming. If you are interested in something, please start by all means. I'm really glad that I met the sport of para swimming.

Interviewed on January 27, 2022 Many thanks to Osaka University of Health and Sport Sciences
Note: The content of the article is current as of the interview date.


Mikuni Utsugi

Mikuni is a native of Kyoto Prefecture. She was born without her right arm below the elbow. At the recommendation of her parents, she started going to a swimming school at the age of three. When she was a junior high school student, she encountered para swimming and took up the sport seriously. Mikuni set a new Asian record in the 2017 Japan Para Swimming Championships 50-meter breaststroke, and won the gold medal in the 2018 Asian Para Games 100-meter breaststroke. In the spring of 2021, she entered OUHS so that she could study to become a teacher while taking part in competitive swimming. She participated in the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics on the Japan national team and won 6th place in the 100-meter breaststroke. Mikuni is expected to be a candidate for the national team at the 2024 Paralympics in Paris.

■ Major awards
◎ Japan Para Swimming Championships (2017)
・ 50-meter breaststroke New Asian record [00: 39.86]
◎ World Para Swimming Championships (2018)
・ 200-meter breaststroke Asian record [03: 06.99]
◎ Pan Pacific Para Swimming Championships (2018)
・ 100-meter breaststroke (SB8) 2nd place
・ 200-meter individual medley (SM9) 3rd place
◎ Asian Para Games (2018)
・ 100-meter breaststroke (SB8) 1st place
・ 200-meter individual medley (SM9) 3rd place
◎ Japanese Para Swimming Meet (2021)
・ 100-meter breaststroke (SB8) 1st place
・ 200-meter individual medley (SM9) 2nd place
◎ Tokyo 2020 Paralympics (2021)
・ 100-meter breaststroke (SB8) 6th place

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