Despite a career-threatening injury and global pandemic, Tokyo teenager remains focused on postponed Games
Once upon a time, headlines in Japan last week were supposed to read, “Nishimura Aori wins gold medal in women’s street skateboarding to celebrate her 19th birthday”.
That was the dream Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games scenario written up for Nishimura, the Japanese queen on boards and one of the host country’s strongest bets at a gold.
Then COVID-19 happened.
The Games were postponed to the summer of 2021, and it remains to be seen when competitive skateboarding will be up and running again.
As with athletes around the world, there’s nothing more frustrating and aggravating for a competitive skateboard star than being in limbo, not knowing when and what you’re training for.
But this is not the first time Nishimura, who turned 19 on 31st July – four days after the street final under the old Tokyo 2020 schedule, has had to face adversity that could make or break her career.
Born and bred in Tokyo, Nishimura took up skateboarding at the age of seven, following in the footsteps of her older sisters, namely Kotone, who also skates professionally.
Aori turned out to be a fast learner, winning a national competition when she was in the fifth grade and made her X Games debut in 2016 as a junior-high school student (placed eighth).
The following year Nishimura had her breakout campaign, first winning the inaugural Japan Skateboarding Championships and then becoming the first Japanese to capture the street title at the X Games in Minneapolis. She was only 15.
But as her career was taking off, Nishimura came crashing down in October 2017 while she was in the United States, tearing her left anterior cruciate ligament.
The injury left her sidelined for eight months, wondering what kind of form she’d be in when she did return - or if at all.
Following reconstructive knee surgery and a career-defining commitment to getting back on wheels, Nishimura returned in July 2018, finishing runner-up in the familiar stomping grounds of Minneapolis.
Off that result, she went on to win the inaugural SLS World Championships in Rio de Janeiro in January 2019 and added a second X Games title in August, cementing her status as a Tokyo 2020 favourite.
“I can’t describe how happy I am. It’s unbelievable”, Nishimura told reporters, after defeating homegrown Leticia Bufoni of Brazil to snare the world championship in Rio.
“I went for a difficult move and it paid off. I skated as well as I possibly could today”.
Away from the skatepark, Nishimura is a fashion icon and even a video game character. Recognized as a game-changer in sport, she was named to Time Magazine's Next Generation Leaders list for 2019.
Nishimura is currently third in the World Skate women's street rankings. With the top 16 qualifying automatically for the Olympics, a place at the Tokyo Games in 2021 seems like a certainty.
Yet after all she has been through, past and present, Nishimura is not about to take anything for granted.
“Everyone is so good. I have to keep working. I need to keep improving so I can stay on the podium”. - Nishimura Aori