Sakurai’s switch proves fruitful in best ever season
Japan’s Anri Sakurai is enjoying the most successful season of her career in the build-up to the 2023 Wheelchair Fencing World Championships in Terni, Italy.
Sakurai has only finished off the podium once across five World Cups, claiming an impressive seven silver and bronze medals in two weapons: the women’s epee and foil category B.
Just last month at the final competition ahead of the Worlds in Busan, South Korea, Sakurai added two bronzes to her collection.
The 34-year-old is currently ranked third in the world in both epee and foil.
So what does Sakurai credit for this epic improvement in form which has seen her hoover-up the medals?
Being forced to switch from using her right hand to her left.
In 2019 at the World Cup in Amsterdam, The Netherlands, Sakurai gained what she describes as a “serious” injury in her right elbow. Doctors advised that she would need surgery and it would take up to 18 months to recover. With her home Paralympics still set to take place the following year at that point, Sakurai had to make a decision.
Agonisingly the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics were then postponed to 2021 in March 2020, meaning there would still not be enough time for surgery and rehabilitation.
“I discussed many times about what should I do with my coach, physiotherapist and doctor,” Sakurai said. “So finally I decided to switch hands to reach my target in the Paralympics. It was a very hard decision for us. Because you know, switching hand is not easy thing even for daily life. I lost my confidence, experience and technics because of that. And I finished in sixth place in 2020 Tokyo Paralympics.”
“This year is the best season in my fencing career. But it’s not easy season for me,” Sakurai reflected, despite her upturn in form with her left hand. But the Asian Championships medallist remains optimistic, taking positive energy from her achievements so far:
“Now the feeling is much better as a lefty fencer because I have been getting some experience in world competitions and training camps. I couldn’t get my current mind without my coach and physiotherapist in the UK. I have been training hard with my coach as a “new lefty” fencer to get experience every day. He was being very patient and giving a lot of feedback to improve my confidence day after day. I know, still I don’t have enough experience to reach my target. But results of this season are giving me a lot. I’d like to use this opportunity to say special thanks to my coach.”
Sakurai competes for her native Japan but has been living and training in London, Great Britain, since 2018. She made the move to access professional coaching and have more wheelchair fencers to practice with. Sakurai has a Japanese coach there and is supported at home by her adorable French Bulldog, Blossom.
“If I didn’t see him [her Japanese coach] in 2016, definitely I would never have got my fencing career in the world without his support. Moving to UK and seeing him made very big turning point for my fencing life. Of course, I really miss my family and friends. I can go back to Japan only once in a year. But I can endure this to reach my target in Paralympics.”
Looking ahead to the World Championships in Terni, which get underway on 3 October, Sakurai is clear on her aims for her first major competition as a lefty: two medals from two weapons. If she achieves this, it will be her first Worlds medals.
But it will also go a long way towards preparation for the Paris 2024 Paralympics.
“I’m really looking forward to competing in Paris because in Tokyo Paralympics we weren’t allowed spectators in the venue. So I think I want my family, friends and my sponsors to come to Paris to watch my matches. And I just focus on two medals in my second Paralympics. So I train much harder and do my best with my dream “Team Anri” in London to reach my dream in one more year.”
The 2023 Wheelchair Fencing World Championships will be broadcast live from Terni at wheelchair fencing’s website between 3-8 October. Live results will also be available, alongside photographs for editorial use.
Fencers from around the world will compete across men’s and women’s epee, foil and sabre category A, B and C as well as team events.
Competition begins on Tuesday (3 October) with the women’s sabre and men’s foil.