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Interview with Yuka Sato リYuka Sato, who represented Japan at the Rio Olympics, talks about the fun of “running in Yamanashi”

Yamanashi’s natural settings make it the perfect place for training. Triathlon athlete Yuka Sato, who represented Japan at the Rio Olympics, talks about the fun of “running in Yamanashi”. Interview with triathlon athlete Yuka Sato Triathlon athlete Teams: Toshin Partners, NTT East, NTT West, and Team Ken's

Winning first competition riding a granny bike

Please tell us about yourself. What kind of child were you?

When I was little, I was strong willed, and had a strong fighting instinct. When playing games, I would get irritated if I didn’t win first place. I have a brother who is two years older than me, and we were always fighting over the television channel.

What got you started with triathlons?

Around age 3, I would swim with my older brothers, and when I was an elementary school student, I frequently entered regional marathons at the prompting of my mother. When I was 9 years old, my mother happened to read about the holding of a local triathlon in a track-and-field magazine. I entered this and won, and this is what got me started. I was good at both marathons and swimming, but I had never cycled before, so I entered the race with a granny bike. There were about 10 participants in the early elementary school category. Everyone around me had a mountain bike, and I was the only person with a granny bike (laughs). A month later, I entered a national competition, and won that as well. Riding a granny bike is of course pretty unusual, so my parents bought me a mountain bike. But at the national competition, all of the participants had road racer bikes (laughs).

It’s pretty amazing that the first time you tried triathlons, you won the national competition. Did you become immersed in triathlons after that?

Even though this was my first time trying triathlons, I won the competitions. As a result, I remember thinking, “Oh, I can do triathlons.” I was happy that I could boast to my friends about winning a national competition. But my friends weren’t familiar with triathlons, so they weren’t as impressed as I had hoped. Starting in junior high school, I participated in weekend-only team training camps, and wasn’t sure whether I wanted to focus on triathlon, swimming, or marathon.

Experiencing the wonder of the Olympic games in Rio

When did you decide to do triathlons in a full-fledged manner? What led to that decision?

When I was in my third year of junior high school, I lost to someone younger than me in a national competition. My parents were not particularly passionate about sports, and we were not a sports family, but my father got really angry with me about this. He said, “I can’t let you do this half-heartedly.” This was right around my rebellious phase, so I hadn’t been practicing very hard. My father was seriously angry with me, and he told me to be clear about what I want to do. In my mind, I decided to do triathlon. This was in the summer, and I decided where I wanted to go to high school with triathlon training as the number one factor.

Triathlon seems to be a grueling sport. What do you find interesting and attractive about it?

Triathlon consists of three types of sports: swimming, cycling, and running. Each of these is fun, and it is interesting not knowing what will happen in the race until the end. I always practice each of these every day. I train 8 hours or more per day, and might do swimming in the morning and cycling and running in the afternoon, and then also do reinforcement training, etc. This is an endurance sport, so it seems that your result really depends on how much effort you put in. When I decided I wanted to participate in the Olympic games in Rio, this thought drove me to train very hard. It seems that the tougher the training is, the more enjoyable the races are.

At the Olympic games in Rio de Janeiro, you came in 15th place, the top spot for Japan. Did you enjoy the race in Rio?

It was a lot of fun. I was surprised by how nice the setting of the Olympic games are. I felt integrated with the race venue, and the air, sea, and wind seemed to be transparent. I usually get nervous before a race, but I didn’t get nervous at all at the Olympic games. I thought I would simply demonstrate the progress that I had made in the training and races leading up to Rio. I think that was the most dignified I have ever felt. I was aiming for the top eight, so the result was disappointing, but I feel that I was able to put forth my best effort in the race.

Training for Rio in Yamanashi on courses with tough ups and downs

Apparently you were introduced to Yamanashi because your team that was based on Tokyo relocated to Yamanashi.

My team was based in Tokyo, and it relocated to Yamanashi about three years ago. That was my first time experiencing Yamanashi. I had always lived in Tokyo, so I was a bit worried, but upon moving to Yamanashi, I found that it has a great training environment. All over the place, there are roads with challenging ups and down that are good for both cycling and running. There are also several specialized triathlon courses a short drive away, so I am very blessed. The courses with tough ups and downs would tire out my body until I got used to them, and I now find these courses enjoyable. The cycling course in Rio featured a steep slope, so the courses in Yamanashi were good places to train for Rio. I feel that I would like many athletes to experience the excellent training environment in Yamanashi. But at the same time, I would like to keep it just for my team, so this is a secret (laughs).

What courses in Yamanashi do you like?

For cycling, there is a 10-km course around Ubaguchi that I train on a lot, and this is just right. As for marathons, I like the area around Kose Sports Park and run there often. In regard to swimming, I frequently swim at Yamanashi Gakuin University, and practicing together with the swimmers there is motivating for me.

What approach would you recommend to someone who would like to enjoy triathlon but is not a professional athlete?

I think it is easier to get into triathlon with the intention of having fun rather than winning races. It is probably good to start with swimming. That is because being able to swim in the ocean is key. Once you can swim steadily in the pool, you will also be able to swim in the ocean. If you want to enjoy cycling, I recommend Lake Saiko. There are no traffic lights, and there are relatively few cars, so you can concentrate on training. I think you should definitely try it out.

Goal is gold medal at the Olympic games in Tokyo!

Lastly, what is your goal going forward?

I want to win the gold medal at the Olympic games in Tokyo! After Rio, I was selected as a promising athlete for the Olympic games in Tokyo, so for me, Rio was an important experience on the way to Tokyo, and the fact that I competed at Rio has given me a lot of confidence. Following Rio, I got the strong feeling that I want to participate in the Olympic games again. I want to steadily build up my strength one year at a time as the Tokyo Olympics approaches. Even if I make progress, the other athletes are also making progress, so this won’t be easy, but I would first of all like to aim for a world ranking in the top 10 in the next season. I hope to continue making progress after that, and that this will serve as a stepping-stone as Tokyo approaches. I want to participate in the Olympic games in Tokyo with the other members of my team. Triathlons are a battle against oneself, so there are difficult times. But when I am working hard together with my teammates, we have a coach who guides us harshly yet warmly, and it is easier to overcome the difficulties. I feel that if I am strong, this will make my juniors stronger, so I am hoping to make progress and lead my junior teammates forward.

Yuka Sato profile

Ms. Sato was born in 1992 in Sakura City, Chiba Prefecture. She has been affiliated with the teams Toshin Partners, NTT East, NTT West, and Team Ken's. At the age of 9, she entered a local triathlon at the prompting of her mother and won it, and subsequently also won a national triathlon. She started pursuing triathlon in a full-fledged manner in high school, and she won the gold medal at the Singapore 2010 Youth Olympic Games. She took 15th place at the Rio de Janeiro Olympic games in 2016, the highest spot for Japan. She is affiliated with a team based in Yamanashi, and trains in Yamanashi.