By Nobuaki Ono / Yomiuri Shimbun Sportswriter For triathlete Yuka Sato, the result of the race was not as important as the component parts.
After finishing 18th at the ITU World Triathlon Yokohama, the fourth event of the global series held in May, Sato spoke with particular satisfaction about the running portion of her performance.
“I was finally able to tough it out during the run, which has been my weak point,” Sato said in the finish area in Yokohama’s Yamashita Park on May 14.
Even better news would arrive five days later — the 24-year-old was chosen for Japan’s team to the Rio de Janeiro Olympics in a slot reserved for “promising athletes for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.”
The triathlon is a grueling event consisting of long-distance legs of swimming, cycling and running, in that order. As Sato starting swimming at 3, she has always considered that the strongest part of her race.
But she showed potential as a runner while in the athletics club of her primary school — enough to draw the attention of one of Japan’s most famous coaches. At an athletics meet in her hometown of Sakura, Chiba Prefecture, she had a chance meeting with noted marathon mentor Yoshio Koide, who has coached many top runners including 2000 Sydney Olympics women’s marathon gold medalist Naoko Takahashi.
“You run very well,” Koide said to her. “Why don’t you come [train] with my team?”
However, Sato decide to pursue the triathlon, which she started when she was a third-grader upon advice from her mother.
In addition to being blessed with athletic ability, “I am the type who is not satisfied unless I’m No. 1,” Sato said.
At 18, she took part in the inaugural Youth Olympic Games in 2010 in Singapore, where she won the gold medal.
Although that earned her recognition as a top prospect for the next generation of triathletes, she failed to make the team to the 2012 London Games.
Fast forward four years, and now when Sato speaks of the aspect in which she has shown the most growth, she replies without hesitation her “mind.”
“In the past, I would stop trying whenever I felt out of form during training or when things were not going my way,” Sato said.
“But the disappointment of not making the London Olympics has made me stronger mentally, to where I push myself when things get tough.”
At a test event held at the Rio Olympics venue in August last year, Sato placed 16th, while finishing ahead of Japan’s top triathlete Ai Ueda. Sato said she had a good impression of the course, as it features a hill in the cycling portion, which Sato excels at. “It suits me,” she said.
The top triathletes are strong runners, so Sato envisions a strategy of being among the lead pack during the swim, then building up a lead during the cycling phase.
Sato will be 28 at the time of the Tokyo Olympics, and to give a boost to her bid for success at the 2020 Games, she intends to make Rio a race she completes with no regrets.