Determination and perseverance are clear traits of Rina Akiyama, best known as a London 2012 Paralympic Games gold medallist. As a Paralympian and someone with congenital blindness, Akiyama has certainly trodden a different path to most, but she has carved out a career in the Essential Training division at the pharmaceutical firm GlaxoSmithKline K.K. It is here that she found a work environment where she was finally treated with necessary, rather than excessive, consideration.
What decision most influenced your career?
It was that I decided not to try doing everything alone. I had more fighting spirit than anyone else from when I was young and I didn’t give up on anything with the excuse of being blind. I have challenged myself as much as possible no matter how long something took. In other words, I tried to do everything myself, even things that would be easier if I asked for others’ assistance.
However, when I started to work, I felt things should not be done this way, since I needed to choose the best way for the firm rather than for myself because I would be paid.
In fact, because of my blindness, there are quite a few things that I cannot finish perfectly by myself, no matter how hard I try. For example, if there is a task that takes three hours for me to finish, but also can be done faster if I finish 80% of the task in one hour, and then a staff member who is not visually impaired finishes the remaining 20% in 10 minutes, then clearly it is better for the firm to choose the latter way.
It was because I had good relationships with fellow staff that I was able to do this, and it worked so well that eventually I was able to do a variety of tasks unexpectedly, and was given more tasks. At the same time I saw that other people—who also have their weak points—were relying on those who are good at those things, without hesitation. Sometimes, they rely on me as well. I realised that it’s not a big deal to be assisted with my eyesight considering that everyone has both strong and weak points, and the team’s goals will only be achieved with the sum of our abilities.
What did you do to win the gold medal at the London 2012 Paralympic Games?
I tried everything that seemed to improve my performance and not just increasing the amount of exercises. Whenever there was something that I could rely on, I made use of it, such as acupuncture for body care, high-speed swimsuits and supplements.
Of course, I did mental training as well. When I look back, this might have been the hardest training. In my mind I thought, “I cannot be at the top without overcoming the great pressure”. I also pushed myself to the limit, saying to myself repeatedly that, “There is no meaning except winning a gold medal”. Because I could overcome this pressure, I was able to perform well.
What challenges are you currently facing?
Improving my English ability. I have dreamed about studying abroad in an English-speaking country since I was a junior high school student, but I could not make it happen because I was focused on swimming. But I began to seriously think about it again once I started working, and since then I have begun learning English. Since I am working at a UK-based firm, I think that I may need to use English one day.
How are you achieving a work–life balance?
I feel that I cannot perform well at work if I’m not enjoying my private time, so I think of them as completely separate. I don’t think about my work after I leave the office. Of course I would if there is a problem, but otherwise I decide not to check my company mobile.
Why did you choose to work at GSK?
I was searching for a job before I participated in the Paralympic Games, and GSK told me they were interested in me even before I featured in the Games, while other firms only offered me a job after I had won the gold medal. At that time, I felt that GSK, more than other firms, was treating me as a “normal” job hunter, rather than as a Paralympic gold medallist, or a blind person.
They have left it up to me how I keep up with swimming in the future, and they said, “We will make every effort to support you for the next Paralympic Games, if you wish”. They also said that, when I retire [from swimming], they would prepare for me to participate in the firm as a working individual, and I could return to swimming at any time after I retired. While it was not comfortable for me to be treated specially, their attitude towards disabled people is that they are generous in giving necessary consideration, but don’t give excessive consideration. This is exactly what I wanted.
When discussing work, many firms would say, “Please let us know what you cannot do, or what your restrictions are”. But with GSK, which was hiring a visually impaired person for the first time, I was asked, “What skills do you have now? What would you like at work?” I felt that I could enjoy working here because this firm was setting expectations for me.
Who influences you? What impact do they have?
There are a lot of people who are involved in my work. It has been five years since I joined the firm and I’m getting pretty used to my job now, but there are still many things I learn from my superiors. I feel that there are many areas where I can improve my skills, such as with presentations, facilitating conferences, preparing materials, training, responding to problems, and so on.
Meanwhile, such challenges encourage me to work hard to reach the right level. When I receive positive feedback about my work or behaviour from the people I respect, my motivation to work better increases, and I try harder so that I can be trusted and relied on.