Maya Nakanishi promised her family that she would never complain about the difficulties ahead when she decided to have her right leg amputated below the knee after a workplace accident in 2006.
The athlete, however, could do little to stop the complaints of others after she picked a rather racy way to raise funds for her training.
Nakanishi, 30, overcame the controversy and her dismal results at the London Paralympics in 2012, and is striving to make the Japanese team for the Rio Paralympics.
Four years ago, Nakanishi had no corporate sponsors. Now, she is backed by four companies.
“With the greater number of people who are now supporting me, I feel a stronger desire to meet their expectations of me,” she said.
About a decade ago, Nakanishi’s lower leg became stuck under falling steel frames at a company in Oita Prefecture that painted such frames.
Her family pressed for a surgical procedure to reattach the leg. But Nakanishi chose amputation.
“It would have been meaningless to attach a leg that would not allow me to take part in sports,” said Nakanishi, then a soft tennis player. “The leg that I could use was a prosthetic.”
She still remembers the pledge she made to her family whenever she encounters a hurdle.
“It has become the driving force to push me forward,” she said.
Nakanishi found quick success on the track. In 2007, she set Japanese records in the 100- and 200-meter sprints.
At the Beijing Paralympics the following year, she finished sixth in the 100 meters and fourth in the 200 meters in the category for athletes with one amputated leg.
Despite being a top athlete in her class in Japan at that time, she had no prospects of gathering financial backing to allow her to continue competing.
“I could only continue competing by working part-time at a sushi restaurant,” Nakanishi said.
She needed about 5 million yen ($45,000) a year to pay her coach and cover other related expenses.
Her debt also ballooned to about 3 million yen after the Beijing Paralympics because she moved her base of operations to the United States.
To come up with the funds to pay for her travel to overseas meets, Nakanishi posed seminude with her prosthetic leg in a calendar published in 2012.
“I wanted people to understand that I was trying to use a disadvantage as my special characteristic as well as to express my stance of using that as a tool for living,” Nakanishi said.
However, the calendar instead brought her a date with criticism. Some said being a woman made it easier for her to pose seminude. Others said she was exploiting her disability for commercial purposes.
Track officials also criticized her because they had to deal with a flood of complaints about the calendar.
The psychological stress made it difficult for Nakanishi to concentrate on her training. She failed to make the finals in both the 100- and 200-meter sprints at the London Paralympics.
Although she retired after that dismal showing, Nakanishi remembered her promise to her family, and she was back competing in spring 2013.
At the Japan Para track meet held in 2014, Nakanishi set an Asian record in the long jump with a leap of 5.27 meters. She is now seeking to improve on that result to assure herself a spot at Rio.
“Until now, I was only concerned about my results because I wanted people to realize (what disabled people could accomplish),” she said.
But having climbed back up after falling so far, Nakanishi is now only concerned about enjoying the competition.
While she continues to compete, she also dreams about what she wants to do after her athletic career is over.
During her time in the United States, Nakanishi found disabled athletes training beside able-bodied ones. That interaction helped all of the athletes improve their performances.
Nakanishi hopes to one day create such an environment in Japan.
“Having had many people support me, I feel it is now my turn to extend a hand to those who need help,” she said. “Athletes must be aware of the influence they can have over society. I want to establish an environment that will make the next generation believe that they want to take part in sports.”