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Fly Tying? You want me to tie a fly? No way. I can’t even darn socks.
I knew I had enrolled in a fly fishing school, but I never thought about the fly tying aspect that would accompany my studies. School started and there I was, my instructor persuading me to give it a try. Reluctantly I went to the tying area. With a heavy heart, I tried my hand at tying my first fly, and managed to make a large and splendid bug. That disheveled fly went on to startle many fish, but one showed interest; all was not lost.

I have a disabled left hand and foot, and in the beginning tying a single mayfly took over an hour. It took me hours to fill my fly box with even a handful of flies.  Then, I took them fishing. They got caught in trees, in grass, everywhere. Before I knew it, my fly box looked empty.

photo courtesy of - Mari Kitagawa

The impetus to begin fly fishing was a company social. I thought maybe fly fishing was something I could do, even with my disabilities. Filled with insecurity, I participated in the event. That was the day my outlook on life changed forever. It was as if I became part of the rivers and seas, plants, and insects. I felt the wind, smelled the outdoor air, and my heart pounded. I quickly found a friend who told me about a fishing spot that was perfect for beginners. From that day, I went there every week on my day off. Where I couldn’t walk, I used casting in clever ways. I also learned when to give in. Regardless, I was in a dream. I now felt somehow happy. There was no holding me back.

Each week I would go back and practice. This was now my inspiration.  As the mayflies floated over the river surface, they teased me, egging me on to remember what worked last week. I peered into my fly box and changed fly after fly. I made note of the day’s weather conditions and water temperatures. I was sad when my day off would come to an end and began to read books about aquatic insects during lunch breaks at work. Every night I tied flies in preparation for my next day off. It seemed like nature held out it’s hand where mine was weak. There was no turning back.

photo courtesy of - Mari Kitagawa

In the beginning, knots were my nemesis. I couldn’t tie them quickly enough and often missed opportunities with fish that rose to the surface. I would become overwhelmed with frustration, sadness, and physical pain. Sometimes I lost my way while standing before the river.

“I guess there’s nothing but to do it.” I told myself.  Every night after work I practiced tying knots. Clinch knots. Surgeon’s knots. I turned out the lights, dampened my hands, or shut my eyes, and tied knots.

I tied knots standing.

photo courtesy of - Mari Kitagawa

I tied knots sitting.

I learned that I needed to put forth great effort in order to enjoy myself more when I visited the fishing area. When the off-season ended, I had become extremely proficient at tying knots. The fish happily responded.

Fly fishing brought me many new stages in life. In particular, it gave me merciless, rigorous trials. I told myself it was OK if my progress was slow. I tried to train myself bit by bit. As my abilities increased, my opportunities surely doubled. If there were many obstacles to overcome, they were equally visited by heightened joy and deep emotion. I started wanting to test my potential with my entire body.

I found respect for myself. As if to bring even more happiness to my future self; as if to reach the people who had supported me when I lost my body’s freedom and fell into despair; I felt the world unfolding before me. That may have been my expression of gratitude to the fortuitous miracle of adapting to this world where life had intersected. For me, meeting each fish became deeply emotional and that emotion transformed into power.

photo courtesy of - Mari Kitagawa

But, those overcoming moments do not exist for the sake of the present and things rarely went as I wished. Even if I resolved myself and felt hopeful, there were still many times I got fed up with my “incompetence” and “thoughtlessness,” and my heart hurt. At such times, I reminded myself to enjoy it. But how to make it more enjoyable was the question.

So that I could extend and enjoy my fishing time, I again researched knot types and increased my advanced preparations. So that I could maintain my balance on boats, I stopped hanging onto the straps on trains. So that I could master handling stripping baskets, I practiced in dark rooms. When I boarded yachts between fishing, I heightened my awareness of the wind and tides.

After encountering fly fishing, it seemed I had something to look forward to, and before I knew it, 10 years had passed. Because I was blessed with senior fishermen, whom I tried to emulate in a backdrop that allowed for trial and error, I was able to determine my own benchmarks and dreams. As I collected fishing trips under my belt, I noticed I had gone from a state of disarray to a gradual untangling. Although I was still grappling with solutions at times, I was able to focus on the fishing itself. My breadth of fishing expanded. I started to think about something more.

I made the decision to join a national team in their training camp for the Paralympic sailing team.  I passed my days memorizing unfamiliar sailing terms, reading strategy books, and engaging in visualization training. I began strength training at home and started building a body fit for tournaments. While I felt a faint sense of joy from learning to make action plans for goal achievement through fly fishing, it had been easier for me because I was supported by my fly fishing friends. Without realizing it, I had become spoiled by all the support. When I turned to sailing, I needed to put in all the more fighting spirit to open the door.

Summer came and I was selected as the Japanese representative for the Asian Games/Paralympic Sailing. These games are held between the Olympics and Paralympics and only take place once every four years. The games were to be held in October 2014 in Incheon, South Korea. I withdrew from a prior fishing tournament commitment and took a gamble on my first overseas game, a stage with the Japanese flag in its background. My nervousness took flight.

photo courtesy of - Mari Kitagawa

When I was chosen as the Japanese representative, special training for the tournament began. The supervising group expected something of me, someone inexperienced with sailing, and I refused to disappoint them. I lacked technique and the days passed with feelings of impatience and frustration with myself. When I became anxious, I did squats for a change of pace. I chose meals that were linked to relaxation and the elevation of physical strength, and I studied color psychology. I used the wisdom I had gained through fishing. In this way, bringing fly fishing to the table washed away a sense of loneliness. It was a way to protect my feelings.

October arrived, and so did my uniform as the Japanese representative. It was almost time to leave the country. As I participated in formal practices, practice races, and the opening ceremony, I became aware that I was on another team’s home turf. Amid the four days of races, as the Japanese team began taking the top spots, other countries watched us more closely. As if they were trying to intimidate us, some boats began trying to block the paths of our Japanese boats. I steeled myself to focus even more on winning. Of course that applied to the race area, but also to the bus from the athletes’ village: I stopped cheerfully talking with participants from other countries and taking photos. In the cafeteria, I started spending my time with the Japanese team or alone. I only implemented the actions that I believed in.

It was all business.

The second day of the races, friends from my student days came to cheer me on. Beneath freezing rain, the Japanese flag waved from the tetra warming my heart. I felt the encouragement at my back lend strength to the hand that gripped the sailing rope. On the final day, as the race came to an end, it was confirmed; I had acquired the silver medal. The silver medal was much heavier than I expected. While gazing at the rising Japanese flag, the faces of many friends rose to mind. My fishing tournament friends supported me from across national borders, even though I had dropped out of the tournament.  My company fishing friends told me to give it my all. When I took on an aura of defeat, and felt I had few opportunities, my friends encouraged me.

It was clear, standing on that podium beneath freezing rain with the Japanese flag waving, that this was a joint effort. I was there because my casting friends encouraged me when I did not feel that my cast was sufficient. I was there because the captain believed in me and continued to meet me when I began fishing for sea bass from a boat. I was there because my teacher pushed me that first day at school when I wanted nothing to do with fly tying. I felt an attachment to the medal that gave me daily strength and courage. Fly fishing brought me there, and the friends I found brought me to fly fishing.

photo courtesy of - Mari Kitagawa

The medal became a daily source of strength that symbolized everyone in my past. It gave me the courage to believe in my experiences and brought forth my latent potential. As a result, I was the first medalist in Japanese parasport sailing history and was offered a position in the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics. I thought, “My feint was a success.”

photo courtesy of - Mari Kitagawa

Until that day ...
In January 2015, a notification arrived hinting that sailing would be removed as a formal event from the Tokyo Paralympics. In Tokyo Bay, where I achieved a fly fishing world record; in Tokyo Bay, which helped me grow; I had planned to raise the Japanese flag before everyone. This had been my greatest motivation, and although the lingering effects of the medal did not fade, my chest swelled with thoughts of the future. I flickered from light to dark like a revolving lantern.

In February, perhaps to lighten my heavy heart, I went to the US to practice for a tarpon tournament. I planned to aim for redfish in Louisiana and sharpen my intuition before taking on tarpon in Florida. Yet, nature ruthlessly met me in that foreign land with the most snow in years and record-setting cold waves. When the time for the tournament came, there were entire days when I could only stand on the platform without moving my rod. To my great chagrin, the plans of several years fell apart, leaving an even greater hole in my heart. After returning back to Japan, I felt desperate to achieve anything and filled my schedule with plans in order to reach the top spot in the global rankings of the IGFA.

I heard that first place had never been achieved by a Japanese person. That was not lost on me. I visualized my photograph in the IGFA Hall for those who achieve first place, and my determination changed. I would be the first Japanese person to achieve first place. Being “first in the world” is a concept that can only be understood by those who seize the opportunity to expand their own potential. In the field of fishing, nationality and gender are of course irrelevant, and people respect each other’s results. After returning from Incheon, I turned my attention to that goal. I caught a world record fish. I caught two on New Year’s, and three over the long holiday in spring. I was doing well. Yet, as the road to the Tokyo Paralympics disappeared, I wondered if I could have fought harder and gotten a gold. My silver medal felt empty. I now needed to be the best in the world in order to be truly happy. I fished for more world records.

It became my obsession.

One day an envelope arrived. As I read the piece of paper. “TOP Female Angler in the Saltwater Fly Rod Category,“ I picked up the silver medal that I had left alone for so long. It was indeed heavy. A sense of accomplishment spread through me. What I had managed to acquire in aiming for world records was more than just a title and physical strength.

Fly fishing suited me, and therefore it gave me a home. The me who fell into despair after losing physical freedom, the me who experienced an expanded range of human emotions through fly fishing, and my current self could now say, all experiences are connected, and my choices were not wrong. At times, I thought there were many things I could not do. Now I think differently. I realize that I am the one who decides my own worth.

photo courtesy of - Mari Kitagawa

Beyond this point, I know not what my bearings or destinations will be. I want to read the wind and continue to throw a fly rod like steering a ship. I want to listen closely to the voice of my heart and experience my fly fishing so that I can always think, “I’m happiest right now.”  

My destination is not yet determined.

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