WATANABE Masako of Japan

Para sport events in general always bring out stories. Happy or sad, sometimes brutal, always honest, these stories usually have one thing in common – the ending is usually inspiring. Para Climbing is no different.

At the IFSC Para Climbing World Cup in Salt Lake City, USA, I got the chance to have a quick talk to an athlete who was celebrating a birthday in Utah. It’s not your usual birthday celebration of the day you were born – this is more about a day of being re-born.

Japan’s Watanabe Masako celebrates the day her leg was amputated. There’s the brutal!

WATANABE Masako of Japan

Now this story isn’t about me, it is about a climber who – although I only met briefly – I just know has a wonderful verve for life. I’ve met, have spoken to, and even bonded with a lot of people like Masako, but yet they always continue to amaze and inspire me.

For reference and throughout reading about Masako there is something you should probably know – I too had cancer. It may be why colleagues drew my attention to this birthday, but I’m also putting it out there as some things I may say come from a place of empathy and reference. But that’s just an FYI, this is about Masako now.

Maco to her friends, the 48-year-old from Tokyo has lived with cancer since the age of five when she was diagnosed with an Osteosarcoma – a form of bone cancer – in her left leg.

“At five I had chemotherapy, radiotherapy and at first I had treatment to get artificial bone replacement as my parents wanted to try and keep the leg, but as I got older, I felt that I needed to change as I had to keep paying more attention to my left leg.

“I am of course grateful to my parents for their concern, but at the same time that brought me many physical and mental limitations.”

Maco’s story is not just about cancer, it’s also about Climbing – they just happen to be interwoven together and led her to the Para Climbing community, well, it was actually more of a push in 2018.

“I was diagnosed with Ovarian cancer in 2018 and that is also why I started climbing. I knew my life would be limited so I wanted to try everything I could, while I still could. But as it turned out, it was a misdiagnosis, and I didn’t in fact have it.”

Despite the misdiagnosis Climbing still piqued Maco’s interest: “I got really interested seeing the Climbing walls in Tokyo and thinking what I could see if I got to the top of them. I researched a little to try Climbing and found Monkey Magic and got in contact with them.”

I knew my life would be limited so I wanted to try everything I could, while I still could.Watanabe Masako

Monkey Magic is a non-profit organisation based in Japan dedicated to empowering people with visual impairment and all others through Climbing.

Although predominantly for the visually impaired, Maco once again took a chance in her life, and hasn’t looked back: “I was scared to try Climbing at first, and even though I didn’t have a visual disability, I contacted them to organise a session.”

Since that session Maco has had a bit of a whirlwind tour through Climbing. Start Climbing in 2019, leg amputation in 2020, Japan National Championships in March 2021 and the World Championships in September the same year.

Not bad for someone just taking up the sport, and you may be forgiven for thinking Maco has a background and base in sport: “Before Climbing I had no sports experience apart from PE classes in school,” explained Maco.

Thinking her life would be limited in 2018 also led onto the reason why we started talking – the ‘birthday’. To some it may sound strange to celebrate something that is so brutal – she lost her entire left leg and hip – but what she gained was so much more.

“I have lived with a tumour and an artificial bone in my leg, that was until 2020 when I decided to get the leg amputated. Since then, I feel like this is my new birthday because now I don’t have to worry about getting another tumour and breaking my artificial bone.”

Speaking from experience, you cannot underestimate that feeling, and to have lived with that fear for so long, well I can’t entirely imagine that as my experience was such a short amount of time in the grand scheme of things. The physical, and probably even more, the mental relief would have been unmeasurable.

Maco’s birthday – 7 May – was the day she had hip amputation surgery, and since that day has walked with a hip prothesis, but no other aids like her cane as she previously had to use.

The decision was based on Maco’s quality of life. For years she had lower limb problems that were thought to be a result of the previous radiotherapy and had undergone vascular bypass operations four times. There was a continuous worry of daily medication. That has all gone now with the huge decision Maco made.

Whether or not Maco has had her joyous outlook on life for long I do not know, but from our very brief conversation I can confirm it is definitely there now as she explains her reasons for doing the things she does.

WATANABE Masako of Japan

“Through Para Climbing I have made a lot of friends and I have got to experience a new world, so I’m happy.

“It’s important to grow myself as a climber but it’s also important to be a role model for children in the same position I am in and was in. Climbing brings my life a lot of meaning.”

I can only tell you what I see when Maco says these things, and I see someone that says this with no hint of selfishness – you believe she genuinely does this for others. Because of this the final words should go to Maco, and those words are:

“All people have possibilities, and I want to tell people that.”

By Richard Aspland

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