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Tani Mami: Iron Paralympian with a Heart of Gold

Yoshii Taeko [Profile]


Tani Mami lost her right leg to osteosarcoma during college. She has since competed in three Paralympic Games with a prosthetic limb in the long jump. Now married and with a son, she is busy training for the 2020 Games in Tokyo in the much more physically demanding paratriathlon.

Tani Mami

Tani MamiBorn in 1982 in Kesennuma, Miyagi Prefecture. Works in the CSR Department of Suntory Holdings on projects involving youth education, disaster recovery support, and disability sports. Began competing in track and field events while in middle school. Was a cheerleader at Waseda University in winter 2001 when she developed osteosarcoma. Had her right leg amputated below the knee and has since been using a prosthetic limb. Began training for the long jump in 2003 and, after joining her current employer in 2004, competed in the Athens Paralympic Games later that year. Also participated in the Beijing and London Games and is now training for the paratriathlon event at the upcoming Tokyo Games.

Striking Gold

Paratriathlon athlete Tani Mami’s smile is warm and infectious. “A lot of people tell me that they like the way I smile,” Tani says. “Maybe because I’ve gone through so many hardships, I can’t help feeling really thankful and happy about even the small, everyday things. I love the time I spend with friends, and the sight of flowers takes my breath away. I’m grateful for my daily meal and thrilled to be able to work out. I’m thankful for each and every moment, and perhaps that seeps through.”

Of all Paralympic events, the triathlon is without doubt the most grueling, requiring athletes to swim, bike, and run in a single race. Paratriathlon became an official event at the September 2016 Rio Games.

Tani was a winner of her very first paratriathlon World Championship race (class PT4 = moderate impairments), held in Rotterdam in September 2017. This was also Japan’s first-ever paratriathlon World Championship gold medal. One could easily imagine how desperate she must have been to protect her lead in the closing stretch, as she was still new to the sport. But when she crossed the finish line, panting and heaving, she was beaming with her trademark smile.

Her cheerful expression is a testament to the countless times she has roused herself up after fate saw fit to deprive her of hope time and again.

Tani competing in the October 2017 paratriathlon demonstration race at Odaiba Seaside Park. (Photo by Takemi Shūgo)

Cancer of the Bone

The first and the most debilitating of such experiences sneaked up on Tani during summer of her second year at Waseda University. She was blissfully enjoying her college life as a cheerleader when she felt a sharp pain in her right ankle. She hoped massage and electrotherapy would ease the pain, but it only got worse. When it became too painful even to walk, she went to a local orthopedist. The doctor could not believe what X-rays showed: it was like Tani’s bones were melting away.

She was referred to the National Cancer Center Hospital in Tsukiji, Tokyo, where she was diagnosed with osteosarcoma, a cancer of the bone. She was hospitalized right away and underwent chemotherapy, whose side-effects included nausea, vomiting, and fatigue. This was more than she could bear, for she had always been physically active—swimming as a grade schooler, competing in track and field in middle and high school, and cheerleading during college. In just a month, she lost her hair, eyebrows, and eyelashes.

She would soon be hit with even grimmer news, though: her right leg needed to be amputated below the knee. She pleaded with her doctor: “There must be other ways of treating the tumor. Shouldn’t surgery be the option of very last resort?”

“I’m afraid that if you don’t amputate it now, you’ll only have a year and a half to live,” the doctor replied.

“But what if your own daughter were in my shoes? Would you choose surgery for her?”

“I wouldn’t hesitate for a moment,” he said firmly. “Life is more important.”

She sank back. The physician was right. She would go through with the amputation. As she entered the operating room, she waved to her parents with a big smile.

Her mother was in tears and wondered how her daughter could be smiling at a time like this. “By then, I had already shed enough tears,” Tani recalls. “My eyes were now dry, and I was emotionally ready for the amputation.”

But the reality of losing a limb took a little longer to sink in. “I often wondered while undergoing treatment why this was happening to me,” she says. She felt alone and deserted.

“I was fighting with myself, with my own weaknesses. I needed something to take my mind off of negative thoughts, so I began attending sports classes for disabled people, where my instructor recommended I try track and field.

Personal Best

Tani joined Suntory Holdings upon graduating from Waseda University in 2004 and continued to train. In just two years after her amputation, she had gained a place on the national Paralympic team to compete in the long jump in London 2012. She was selected again to participate in the 2008 Games in Beijing and was training for the 2012 Games in London when the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami devastated her hometown of Kesennuma in Iwate Prefecture in March 2011.

The waves washed away the house in which she grew up, along with—it seemed—her very identity. With the support of her employer, she focused her energies on assisting those displaced by the disaster and helping decimated areas recover and rebuild. People in the community reciprocated her efforts with words of encouragement for the upcoming Paralympic Games.

“It then dawned on me that the best way of lifting people’s hearts in my hometown would be to perform well in London. That’s when I started devoting more time again to training.”

She scored her personal best during the London Games and won the bronze the following year at the World Championships in Lyon.

  • [2018.03.29]

Sports journalist. Born in Miyagi Prefecture. Became a freelance writer in 1991 after working for 13 years at the Asahi Shimbun. Was awarded the Mizuno Sportswriter Award the same year for her book, Kaerazaru kisetsu: Nakajima Satoru F1 gonen-me no shinjitsu (The Season of No Return: The Fifth and Last Year of Nakajima Satoru’s F1 Racing Career). Other works include Kami no nikutai: Shimizu Hiroyasu (The Divine Physical Discipline of Shimizu Hiroyasu) and Hinomaru joshi barē: Nippon wa naze tsuyoi no ka (The Secret of the Japanese Women’s Volleyball Team’s Strength).

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