Honoring a Higher Self

Kenji Sakamura with his SideStix

Kenji Sakamura

We can’t make things better if we don’t acknowledge the way things are.  Accepting this truth is vital in a pandemic and the anti-racism movement, as well as a loss of mobility.  In this month’s blog, Kenji Sakamura tells the story of his life, and shares why it’s important to work hard to become a better, higher self each day.

Kenji Sakamura finds courage honoring high places. He has always felt that stepping forward into risk is the only way he can live a satisfying existence. “Life without risk is no fun,” he says. “Challenging yourself makes more sense than not challenging yourself, even if you’ve lost something. When you’ve arrived at that simple answer, I think it gives you courage.” A 10-meter-high “miserable fall” left Kenji an incomplete paraplegic. It was courage, determination, and intense work in rehab along with using SideStix that enabled Kenji to stand on a mountain summit just 11 months after his accident. With the perseverance to keep going and the spirit not to give up, anything is doable, according to Kenji. 

 What is it that forces you to acknowledge today’s struggles and tomorrow’s challenges? Taking a step forward. It’s a healthy reality-check. But if gains made can be measured against yesterday’s self, it can be an incredible and insightful experience. Kenji is having fun engaging in big and little adventures outdoors using his SideStix (and underarm crutches indoors). These are the tools that work for him as he continues to get stronger. Kenji knows whether it is an experience from a high place (literally and figuratively) or an accomplishment from an exceedingly small thing; the results do not matter. It’s all about the process.

What challenges your mobility and how do you overcome this challenge?

When I was 21 years old, I fell 10 meters while climbing a waterfall and damaged my spinal cord. The site of injury is lumbar vertebrae 1, and there is asymptomatic paralysis in both of my lower extremities. I couldn’t move at all from the waist down at the time of the accident. About two weeks after surgery I was able to move my legs little by little, rehabilitated and was discharged from the hospital with crutches six months later. I stood at the top of the mountain 11 months later. There is little to no muscle from the knee down. My left thigh remained as muscular as the healthy one, but my right leg was heavily paralyzed and the buttocks were also heavily paralyzed on both sides. Therefore, it is not possible to walk without crutches. Biking is done with short ankle braces to turn the pedals. Skiing is done with skis on both feet and outriggers on both arms, as is the case with my SideStix. If you use the right tools for you and compensate for lost function elsewhere, you can do quite a bit. It may be difficult at first, but it’s important to keep going without giving up. I think that spirit is the key to overcoming it. Never give up!

Kenji Sakamura

Kenji Sakamura

What does “defy convention” mean to you?

Don’t dwell on the past. Change the way you look at things. Look for another way to go. Don’t be afraid to fail. Resolve to take responsibility for yourself. Try to be who you are. 

What is your passion in life?

It’s the same thing as when I was a kid:  I enjoy outdoor sports. Lately, I’ve been aiming to go abroad and enjoy it. I actually went to Colorado, USA a short while ago and enjoyed skiing and hiking. It would be great to be able to cross borders and races and enjoy climbing, skiing and cycling. That’s why I’m learning English now.

What’s your favorite thing about your SideStix?

One of the biggest changes I’ve noticed since I started using SideStix crutches is that the pain in my wrists caused by walking for long periods of time has been greatly reduced. I think the shock absorbers are doing the trick. My climbing speed is less than half that of an able-bodied person. It takes a lot of time, and this time loss is huge. This leads to a reduction in climbing time. Without the shock absorbers in my SideStix, it would be painful to walk for two hours; I’d have to take more breaks to relieve it.

Next is the choice of side cuffs. With the front cuff, for example, when I take things out of my waist bag, my crutches seem to slip out of the gap. With the side cuff, I can move my hands while holding the crutches. It’s a small thing, but being able to work with your hands while keeping the crutch braced at the elbow is less stressful. 

One thing I haven’t had a chance to actually use yet is the snowshoe attachment, that allows you to hike in deep snow. I used to use ski poles in deep snow because normal crutches would get buried in snow. This way, you can’t put much weight on the stock, so you get tired. I’m looking forward to winter!

What gives you courage?

There is a quote that I relate to when I face my challenges: “It’s miserable to fall from a high place. But it’s even more miserable not to be able to climb that high”. The courage to take a step forward wilts when you think of the risks, such as risking your life, or failing and causing trouble for those around you. If we didn’t do anything, we would be safe and not bothered. But when I think about whether my life is satisfied with that, the answer is no. When you feel yourself wanting to climb higher and acknowledge that feeling, you realize that life without risk is not fun. At least challenging yourself makes more sense than not challenging yourself, even if you’ve lost something. When you arrive at that simple answer, I think it gives you courage.

Kenji Sakamura with his SideStix crutches

Kenji Sakamura

What has been the defining moment in your personal or professional life?

I was 14 years old when I discovered long distance running. Until then, I didn’t feel confident about anything. My brother had to take me to the mountains, but he told me to work out because I was not fit. I started running 5 miles every day. Thanks to that, I was able to get to the top of the mountain, and I was the fastest runner in middle school. This was a great confidence booster for me. I’ve come to believe that there is no place in the world that I can’t go with these legs. It’s the same after my injury. Of course, there have been countless failures and setbacks. But because of this mindset, I was able to climb mountains after my injury, I was able to ski, and I was able to bike 400km in 25 and a half hours. If I can keep this in mind, I think I can do many things in the future.

What is your idea of a perfect day?

To be better than yesterday’s self. To be able to do things you couldn’t do yesterday. I’ve shortened my time, increased my distance, taken my first steps, gained new knowledge, etc. It can be a very small thing. And it’s great if you enjoyed it.

If you could have dinner with any person, alive or dead, who would that be?

For me, it’s American climber and rope jumper Dan Osman. It was 25 years ago now that I saw the video he was in. I was doing dangerous free solo climbing and rope jumping next to death. There were many times when I was heading to the mountains alone, and I was too scared to take a step. At one such time, I watched a video of him and was inspired by his courage. Unfortunately he passed away, but if I had the opportunity to share a meal with him, I would want to thank him and ask him what it was that he was striving for, because I think that’s the essence of adventure.

Kenji Sakamura

Kenji Sakamura

What are your top 5 favorite ways to stay motivated?

1 Picture yourself as successful. Read books and look at photos of successful people and develop an image of them.

2 Think back to the day you decided to take on a challenge.

3 Lower your target. Set a challenge that you can achieve. Think only about what you can do today.

4 Don’t dwell on the results; place a value on the process.

5 Do nothing and rest. Massage, bathe, stretch, and listen to your favorite music!

Do you have a message for other crutch users?

I actually use underarm crutches in my daily life. In the house, I don’t use crutches, and move around by holding on to the wall or sitting and crawling on my butt, because I’m not stable in the standing position. The armpit crutches are more stable for my everyday life: for work, for carrying a bag in your hand, for shopping, etc. In the outdoors, however, armpit crutches can be inconvenient, and SideStix work best in a variety of environments.

I think it’s a good idea to use different types of crutches depending on your disability and lifestyle, and with SideStix there’s almost no place you can’t go. Don’t give up going outside because of your crutches. I think the SideStix assembly will promise you amazing views and encounters with people and wildlife from around the world.

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