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Mr. Jun Shida

Leading Athletes to Paralympic Victory

Jun Shida made headlines at the Olympic and Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020 when he guided Misato Michishita to marathon gold. NEC quality management specialist shares his thoughts on how and why he is driven to help others excel.

"The fact that we won took a while to sink in," says Shida. "I would fall asleep, and I'd be back at the day of the race, thinking we had to hurry and get ready and warm up. But then I would wake up and be relieved to see we actually took home the gold medal."

On the final day of the Olympic and Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020, Michishita earned Japan one of its last gold medals of the event, cutting the tape in the women's T12 marathon with a time of 3 hours and 50 seconds, a Paralympic record. As photos of Michishita crossing the finish line show, she didn't do it alone: running alongside her was Shida, a guide runner for the visually impaired.

"Around 36 kilometers, I looked back and I couldn't see other runners anymore," says Shida. "Around that point, I thought it was no longer a competition with others, but simply a question of us being careful and to keep going until we made it."

A helping hand

Guide runners are sighted people who assist visually impaired athletes in achieving their physical activity and sports goals. Guides and athletes are often paired with a tether, which has a loop on each end to grasp. This bond allows visually impaired runners to give their best performance without having to worry about obstacles, changes in elevation and navigation.

The T12 marathon competition for visually impaired has been a Paralympics event since the 1988 Summer Paralympics held in Seoul, South Korea. Participants include totally visually impaired people, who run with guides, or partially visually impaired, who run independently or with a guide. The race showcases not only the athletes' competitiveness with each other, but their teamwork with guide runners.

Becoming a guide runner was something that came naturally to Shida, a quality management specialist at NEC. A longtime devotee of long-distance running, Shida participated in the Hakone Ekiden, one of Japan's most watched races, for three years in a row when he was in university. The two-day relay is a grueling race from Tokyo to the hot springs resort of Hakone, Kanagawa Prefecture, and back for a total distance of 217 kilometers. He later competed in company events, and his passion for running sees him doing 20 to 30 kilometers every day.

"Of course it feels great if I were to win myself in a competition," Shida says. "But it's even better to accompany an athlete who wins. That's the real thrill for me. That's something I really noticed."

Partnering for victory

Shida began guide running in 2006, first doing it on a whim to help a particularly impressive athlete on the track. In 2014, he met Michishita, and the two proved to be a dynamite combination. The petite competitor, only 144 cm tall, lost her vision in her right eye due to corneal dystrophy when she was in elementary school, later suffering vision impairment in her left eye as well. She began running marathons in her 30s and won a silver medal in the 2016 Summer Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

After Shida and Michishita began training intensively together, they formed a close bond and their own unique way of communicating. They also overcame challenges amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

"Due to the coronavirus, we could not attend training camp together, so we had to practice individually and communicate online about what we'd done," says Shida. "I knew we had to get up our game after winning silver at Rio in 2016, so I asked the Japan Blind Marathon Association to allow guide runners into the training camps. After they agreed, we were able to improve our team's performance."

At the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic T12 marathon, Michishita was first accompanied by Yuka Aoyama before Shida took over. After beginning at the Olympic Stadium, the team passed landmarks in the capital such as Tokyo Dome, Sensoji Temple, and Tokyo Tower. The second half of the race provided a key moment in Michishita's gold medal performance. It came around the 30 kilometer mark, near the Imperial Palace, when Shida noticed the slowing pace of competitor Elena Pautova, a formidable Russian athlete who won gold in the T12 1,500 meters at the Paralympic Games in 2004 and 2012.

"We narrowed the gap between us to only 3 meters, so I asked Ms. Michishita, 'Can you go?' and she said yes," says Shida. "So I said, "Let's make a break for it' and we began our spurt. That proved to be the decisive moment in the race."

Striking a balance

The value of teamwork and communication in Paralympic competition is something that Shida also feels in his work at NEC's headquarters for production engineering quality promotion. In his position as a storage device specialist, he receives comments from customers and incorporates the feedback into NEC's efforts to improve product quality. He has to seek a balance between what customers want and what is actually possible.

"It's very difficult to do what we think may be right in conveying customer complaints to the technical team due to various circumstances, so there's a kind of conflict," says Shida. "As a guide runner, I could tell the athlete I'm supporting that we can definitely win if we do this or that. But this can also be arrogance on my part, since I have to consider their perspective. That's why I feel that there is a common difficulty in both communicating at work as well as between athletes and guide runners. That's my personal challenge."

After a well-earned rest following the record-setting victory at Tokyo 2020, Shida wants to help cultivate the next generation of guide runners by passing on the knowledge that he has accumulated over the past 16 years. Aside from the rigors of training, and the close bond that must be formed with athletes, having a strong sense of motivation and mission is especially important.

"I'm proud of being an NEC employee, and I was very happy to hear all the congratulations from my coworkers," says Shida. "I have been aiming to win a gold medal for five years. Victory was possible because I could hear those words and see those smiles on the other side of the finish line, as well as my motivation to add positivity to their lives. I really felt that each of those congratulations was my reward every time I heard them."