Paralympics: Para - Athletes Look To Cheer Disaster - Hit Areas

Paralympics: Para-athletes look to cheer disaster-hit areas

As Japan remembers the devastation of the March 11, 2011 earthquake and tsunami, athletes at the Pyeongchang Winter Paralympics are looking to bring some cheer to the disaster-hit areas they call home.

Yurika Abe lost her house in the earthquake and tsunami that hit northeastern Japan, but didn't lose sight of her goal to become one of Japan's best physically impaired Nordic skiers.

In Pyeongchang, she is out to prove her performance in cross-country skiing and biathlon can brighten the day of those who remain deep in sorrow, with Sunday marking seven years from the disaster that claimed more than 15,000 lives.

"I want to deliver my best skiing so I can energize the people in Japan, especially those in the affected regions," Abe said.

Abe, who sustained permanent nerve damage in her left arm at birth, became interested in the sport after watching athletes race at the 2010 Vancouver Paralympics, and attended Japan's training camp two months before the disaster.

She was at her junior high school in Yamada, Iwate Prefecture, when northeastern Japan was hit by a Magnitude 9 earthquake. When she returned the following day, only the structure of the two-floor building remained in place. Her new skis and boots were among many things she was unable to find.

The town, with a March 2011 population of 19,270, was devastated. The earthquake, tsunami and a huge fire combined to kill more than 800 people there and destroyed about half the houses in the area.

The 22-year-old left to go to high school and concentrate on skiing, and when she goes back she is always surprised by how quickly reconstruction has progressed. Now, as a university student, it has become her motivation.

"The town is changing every time I return, and I notice the residents are moving forward," Abe said. "I always think I have to improve too. It's really a boost."

The 10-day Games in South Korea that kicked off Friday will be her second Paralympics. She participated in five events at the 2014 Sochi Games, where her best result was eighth in the standing cross-country 15-kilometer classic style race.

"I definitely think about the disaster and how its seven-year anniversary falls during the Paralympics," Abe said. "It's simply a coincidence and I try to think of them as two separate things."

"I don't think about the earthquake much when I'm skiing, but it's deep down in my roots. I know I have to do my best because there are so many people cheering for me in Yamada."

Competing on March 11 also holds special meaning for Alpine sit skier Takeshi Suzuki, who hails from Fukushima Prefecture, which gained international notice for the meltdown at one of its nuclear plants.

While his inland hometown of Inawashiro was not heavily affected, Suzuki was shocked by the destruction he saw when he visited the coastal area.

He said his goal at Sochi, where he won slalom gold, was to inspire people who lost their homes and family. And he hopes his performance here can do the same.

"Ever since the disaster, it's always sad news on March 11. I know it's so that we don't forget, but I wanted just one bit of good news. That goal hasn't changed. Growing up in Fukushima made me strong and I want to give back a little."