© Yuki Saito
One of the things that I started feeling at around the time of the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games was that while there are ups and downs in life, it all comes out even in the end. The good and the bad alternate, so that bad things follow good things, and vice versa. You might achieve great results in a competition following tough training. But, something negative may happen after such great results, almost as if it were the price that you had to pay. Things like that repeat themselves as you head toward that moment in which things ultimately come out even at the time of your death. Since life is like that, there is no need to worry about whether something was good or bad. I was thinking things like that when I learned an old Chinese proverb: For human beings, all things are like Old Sai’s horse. Referring to an ancient Chinese story, it means that a setback may be a blessing in disguise. It was then that everything fell into place in my mind. This is my outlook on life, and my starting point for this way of thinking was the Nordic Combined.
© first track Inc.
Something that had a huge impact on me, both as an athlete and as an individual, was seeing the sportspersonship shown by Jason Lamy-Chappuis during one of the 2011-12 FIS Nordic Combined World Cup events. Lamy-Chappuis accidentally stepped on and broke a rival’s ski pole during a competition. Although he could have ignored it and gone on ahead, Lamy-Chappuis waited until his rival received a spare pole from his coach. After resuming the race, he still went on to win it, fair and square. While my competition level was nothing comparable to that of Lamy-Chappuis at that time, I felt very strongly that winning at any cost wasn’t the way to go. Even if I won a medal, it would have lost its value if the process leading to it were not one with integrity.
I don’t think that there is all that much difference among top athletes in terms of their physical training. However, to be a real champion, one ultimately needs to have a personal strength.
Just as in the concept of Kotodama – literally ‘word-spirt’ in Japanese; the Shinto belief that there is divine power residing in words and sounds – I believe that you can tell about a person’s daily life and behaviour through their words and facial expressions. From taking the above into consideration, I regularly look back on how I might appear to others.
For example, you need to be aware of your own attitudes, words and behaviours, and be able to express yourself clearly in public. Otherwise, if you are ever asked to comment on something, people will be able to tell if you are faking it or making something up on the spot. I want to be the kind of person that leaves everyone, regardless of age or gender, with the impression of being a grounded person. As I am aspiring for dignity, I need to be aware of my words, deeds and mode of behaviour on a daily basis. I believe that valuing the accumulation of such efforts and developing my personal strength is the path to be a real champion.
© Yuki Saito
Since I believe that the accumulation of such daily efforts cultivates a personal strength, I am constantly thinking about how I should be in that particular moment.
The problem with focusing only on sport is that I can get a tunnel vision. That’s why I try to read a wide range of books, expand my vocabulary and develop my eloquence. I think that it is also important to meet people with different backgrounds, experience new, unfamiliar worlds, and expand my horizon.
This holds true for my training as well. I proactively take in new information and adopt new things. I have never had a full-time coach of my own to begin with, so if I obtain new information, I try it out on my own while thinking of how to combine it with other things. I learn better strategies and methods, and make it gradually become part of my own knowledge.
Not having a full-time coach means that I do not have information that I can trust without question or doubt. Hence, I am always somewhat doubtful about new information. I cannot have unshakable confidence in things I haven’t tried myself. But the other side of the coin is that because I do things on my own initiative and not because I have been told, the accumulation of trial and error always results in developing my strengths in some way or other. I have learnt more through the error part of things – by making mistakes or embarrassing myself. The most important thing is that I have many string to my bow, that I use them flexibly according to the situation, and that I learn things on my own through such experiences. Then, I think about how I could and should be by examining how things are at that moment, and act accordingly. My belief is that doing so will give me strength not just as an athlete but also as a human being.
© Yuki Saito
I am often asked what my future goal is. To be honest, I don’t think about that very much. Rather than working towards what I want to become in the future, I want to pursue how I should be at this moment in order to live up to my full potential as an individual.
For example, to be a real champion now, one can start doing many things in regard to how one might speak, act or behave. You don’t have to wait a year to do that. To me, ‘wanting’ to be something seems to have a sense of giving-up, but at the same time ‘wanting’ implies that you might not be able to achieve something. If you pursue how you should be in the moment and in the present, it’s about something that you can act on now. You cannot turn your back or give up trying. If you do your best in that moment to achieve that vision of how you should be and repeat that every day, a year later, you can be someone who could be even better than what you might have thought that you wanted to be.
Of course, my feeling sometimes wavers. There are many things that I do that I feel contradict what I’ve been saying. Bringing myself back to be the person that I feel I should be isn’t easy; it’s really hard. The toughness of physical training is really nothing in comparison.
© Yuki Saito
In life, everything comes out even in the end. Whether it’s something good or bad, it’s like Old Sai’s horse, and every cloud has a silver lining. The important thing is the process that is followed.
Sport is interesting because it has restrictions in the form of rules. When I am competing overseas, I think about how I can accept and respond to the situation in front of me – how I should be under the regulated conditions. I try to enjoy myself while doing so, as if it were a game, doing my best under the circumstances that I find myself in. I think that you can live a better, stress-free life if you live it doing what you believe is decent and proper – the straight and narrow – instead of achieving something after following a process that is not honorable.
I used to call this kind of thinking ‘living like slime,’ but I came upon the words, “Jyozen-Mizunogotoshi（上善如水） – the highest excellence is like water (used in Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu)”. In other words, the highest excellence is being like water and changing the way that one is, smoothly, flexibly – according to any circumstance – and without resistance. I felt that this phrase expressed the ‘TRUTH in ME’.
This applies to doping as well. I cannot understand at all why anyone would want to partake in doping. Even if you were only seeking results like money, prestige or fame, if it wasn’t achieved by following an honorable process, you would probably have that on your conscience for the rest of your life. Furthermore, a weak athlete remains weak, even if he tries to change things through doping. Strength obtained through doping is not real strength, and the athlete will definitely lose someday. It doesn’t matter to me whether my opponent is cheating through doping or not. So long as I face myself more than others, and so long as I spend every day as someone who is authentic, then I will become a real champion who is overwhelmingly stronger than anyone.
With that said, I also believe that sport competition is not my whole life. Of course, sport is something wonderful, and I love it. But the thing is, sport only stands out in an affluent society. I don’t think that there is any necessity for sport at the bare bones of civil life. I believe that there wouldn’t be much of an impact on society even if an athlete like me could achieve good results in competition. Even so, there might be one person whose life changes in some way after hearing something that I said. With expectations held toward that kind of remote possibility, I believe that making proper statements is an important part of the way ‘I should be’ right now.
Born in 1988 in Hakuba, Nagano Prefecture, Japan. Made his Olympic debut at the Turin 2006 Winter Olympic Games whilst a high school student, then participated Vancouver 2010, Sochi 2014 and PyeongChang 2018. Won a silver medal in the Individual Gundersen NH / 10km event at both Sochi 2014 and PyeongChang 2018.
Claimed the 2017-18 season title at the FIS Nordic Combined World Cup.
Sport itself is something unique. I genuinely think that sport is a common language that everyone in the world can understand and has a feel for – that is sport. People engage with sport on different levels.
There are many incredible and amazing moments in sport, but then there have also been really challenging training sessions or training camps that pushed me and tested me both physically and mentally.