Japan Paralympian seeks to change perceptions
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 year ahead.
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 were standing.
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 achievement.
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 understood me.''
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 year.
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 inspirational speaker.
''I went to so many companies to talk about sponsorships,'' she said. ''They really want to have a relationship with Olympic athletes.''
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 bright pink.
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 page.
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 being printed.
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 athletes.
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 said.
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 effort.
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.''