Japanese Paralympic athlete, nurse and violinist Manami Ito steals the show

Haunting notes resonate from Manami Ito’s violin as she gracefully draws her bow back and forth, squeezing it with her specially designed prosthetic arm.

The Japanese musician captivated a nation with her brief but stunning performance at the opening ceremony of the Tokyo Paralympic Games, and playing the violin isn’t even her day job.

The 36-year-old is a trained nurse and former Paralympian swimmer who has spent years since losing her right arm in a motorcycle accident defying her opponents and overcoming every obstacle in front of her.

“There were always people saying to me, ‘No, you can’t do it. It’s impossible,” she said at her mother’s house, by a green river.

“Every time I’ve faced this kind of wall, I’m like, ‘They’re saying that because nobody’s done it before. So I’m going to do it.

But that wasn’t always how Ito felt, especially in the dark days following his accident at the age of 20.

“I thought I would stay home for the rest of my life,” she confesses. “I didn’t want my friends or neighbors to see my body, I didn’t want them to know what happened to me.”

It was the sight of her “really suffering” parents over her condition that caused her to rethink her stance.

“I thought, I can’t make them smile if I don’t smile myself,” she said.

Ito had been encouraged by her mother to play the violin as a child, and after her accident she decided to try again.

At first, she tried to play by sticking the bow to her foot. It took years before she could get a special prosthetic arm and master the flowing tones she now produces.

And having been a child who “hated to lose or fail,” she didn’t dare play in public for a long time.

But in the end, his determination won out.

“I want to show the world that just because no one else has done it doesn’t mean I can’t do it,” she said.

Manami Ito and her husband, Yuki, play with their daughters Mei (left) and Miu (right). | AFP-JIJI

“What is normal can be different”

Ito was a nursing student at the time of the accident and was determined to resume his training.

But the first prosthesis she received looked more like a store mannequin arm than a functioning limb.

“At first I was very happy, because when I put it on and came out, no one looked at it,” she said.

But she quickly realized that “it didn’t help me at all”, and fought to exchange it for a new one that moved and allowed her to work.

In 2007, she became the first qualified nurse in Japan to use a prosthetic arm and took up a position in the city of Kobe, choosing to move away from her family home in order to live independently.

It was there that she rediscovered another childhood passion: swimming.

She began training after work for Paralympic sports competitions before swimming at the Paralympic Games in Beijing in 2008 and London in 2012, reaching the final three times under her maiden name, Nomura.

And although she has tried to hide her scars before, Ito said she chose swimming precisely because it revealed her for who she is.

“I never wanted anyone to look at my scars, the scars were the most vulnerable part of my body,” she said. “But I started thinking about exposing them to the world, because otherwise I would never be strong.”

Ito stopped breastfeeding in 2015 after getting married and is now mainly focused on raising her daughters, aged 2 and 5, although she continues to talk about her life.

She plans to watch Sunday’s Paralympic Closing Ceremony at home with her husband and children, whom she teaches to appreciate diversity.

“When my daughter grows up, there will be a day when her friends tell her that her mother looks strange,” Ito said. “I want to hear him say that it’s his mother, and what is normal can be different for each person and each family.”

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