For someone about to make their Olympic debut on home soil, BMX prodigy HATAKEYAMA Sae cuts a relaxed figure. But maybe that makes sense for someone that has been cycling almost as long as they've been able to walk.
The Kanagawa Prefecture native first got on a BMX bike when she was three years old and her first race was at four. Aged 10, she won her first UCI BMX World Championships Girls title, before winning it again at 12 and 13.
Realising that she had a special talent, Hatakeyama relocated to the UCI World Cycling Centre in Switzerland to take her career to the next level and claimed the Japanese national BMX title in 2017.
Now 22, the Japanese is being touted by many as a gold medal threat at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.
The key to her success? Enjoyment. Hatakeyama sees it as a "delight" rather than a burden to be representing her country.
In an exclusive interview with Olympics.com she reveals how she copes with nerves ahead of Tokyo 2020, why tennis ace Naomi Osaka is her sporting idol, and why she carries a stuffed rabbit with her!
Q: Tell us about the past few months in the build-up to the Games – what has your preparation been like?
Hatakeyama: I have been doing the same training as usual, including my start which needed to improve. It’s getting better than before.
In terms of mental preparation, I’m not conscious about the Games because I want to compete there the same as the other competitions. Ideally, I would be relaxed and perform as usual.
Q: Are you staying in the Olympic Village? What are you most looking forward to?
Hatakeyama: I will stay at the Olympic Village. This is the first time for me to be there, so everything is new. I look forward to being there and feeling what it’s like.
It’s a bit of a strange feeling not seeing my family. Because usually when I go back to Japan, they come and welcome me at the airport but this time I will go straight to the Olympic Village, and I won’t see them until the end of the Games.
Q: Japan gave the athletes a send-off in Tokyo. How does it make you feel that the Olympics are finally here?
Hatakeyama: For now, I am more excited than nervous. I am sure the feeling will change closer to the Games. Normally, I get nervous the day before competitions.
I know that I cannot get a good result if I am too nervous. So, if that happens, I take a deep breath to stop negative thoughts coming into my mind.
Q: How does it make you feel when people say you’re the one to watch in BMX Racing at Tokyo 2020?
Hatakeyama: It is a delight for me, and I feel a bit of pressure. Before I qualified for the Games, I put pressure on myself by saying, "I have to qualify. People around me expect me to do so." But now, the pressure is lighter.
Q: Can you explain how it feels to be preparing for your first Games with the added responsibility of representing the host nation?
Hatakeyama: I feel I am very lucky because competing at the Olympics is my dream especially after BMX became an official sport at Beijing 2008 when I was nine years old. And it takes place in my home country, which is not something that everyone can experience.
It is going to be my first Olympics, so I want to enjoy the atmosphere and everything.
Q: Who do you see as your main challengers?
Hatakeyama: I think everybody that qualified, because it means all of them are fast.
Q: Who are your sporting inspirations?
I like Naomi Osaka. She seems like a chilled person but when she plays, she is so strong and so cool.
Q: You started BMX with your family, and they know about BMX. Do they make give you feedback on your performances?
Hatakeyama: They used to do that! My mum checked the recording of my performances and made comments like, "It’s better to do this and that." But since I moved to Switzerland for training, away from them, I don't get that anymore.
Q: How has your early success in 2011 and 2012 changed your life?
Hatakeyama: I have been competing at the World Championship since 2008 but nothing changed after the wins. I realised that BMX is my sport, and I will do this for a long time.
In terms of my daily life, it didn’t change much. BMX is a minor sport in Japan so when I went to school, I was just an ordinary student.
Q: What lessons from the past could help you in Tokyo?
Hatakeyama: I've won the World Championship three times. After the third win in 2012, I haven’t achieved a good result. Instead, it got worse year by year. I finished second in 2013 and then third in the next year. The year after, I didn’t even qualify for the final.
In those years, I was thinking, "Why can't I get a good result even though I’m training hard?" I didn’t enjoy riding at all. But then I realised it’s very important to enjoy BMX itself.
When I started BMX the first time, it was such fun and this was the only reason I rode.
Q: So, enjoyment is the key for you?
Hatakeyama: I like the word ‘Tanoshinda-mon gachi’ (translated as 'You will be a winner if you enjoy it'). If you don’t enjoy the training, you cannot be better and cannot get a good result. So, it’s very important to remember the feeling when I first started riding.
Q: I read that you take a stuffed rabbit called Piro-chan everywhere with you. Is this true?
Hatakeyama: Yes. I am planning to take it to the Olympic Village with me.
Q: How do you think you will perform in Tokyo?
Hatakeyama: I want to give my 100%. If I can do that, I believe that the results will follow. I hope people enjoy my performance.