Three quarters of the way through Saturday’s U.S. national championship in the 50 k classic, when the men’s pack began the process of whittling itself down, an unfamiliar figure emerged from the mix into the lead group.
Tucked into a sea of U.S. Ski Team and club uniforms, it was easy to miss the tiny form of Yuma Yoshida, who can’t stand much taller than five-and-a-half feet. But by the time the race wound down, he was impossible to ignore, having locked up third place overall.
Yoshida, 20, is one of a trio of Japanese skiers currently racing in Sun Valley, along with Takuya Nakatani, who was 29th on Saturday, and Chisa Obayashi, who will race in the 30 k on Sunday.
They’re in the country thanks to the efforts of Tats Watanabe, an ebullient, middle-aged man whose company distributes Madshus skis in Japan.
Watanabe, who also coaches, had been planning all winter to bring at least one athlete to Idaho in March. Not Yoshida though, who decided to make the trip when his own country’s national championships were cancelled due to the earthquake and tsunami earlier this month.
“He wanted to shape up for the national championship; he couldn’t, so he tried to bring the energy over here,” Watanabe said.
The athletes, helped by the clubs, paid their own way. But Peter Hale, Madshus’s race service director in the U.S., helped Watanabe navigate sign-up and logistics, and arranged for Clark Sullivan, a wax technician who worked with the American nordic combined team in Vancouver, to prepare skis.
Yoshida is no slouch, having notched a ninth place in the 30 k freestyle at the World Universiade in Turkey earlier this year. But through Watanabe, he admitted that Saturday’s result was “more than he expected.”
After withstanding numerous charges and chases by the Americans and Canadians in the field, Yoshida was the only man in the field who came close to sticking with Kris Freeman on the last lap, though he ultimately was caught and passed by Canadian Kevin Sandau before the line.
Yoshida hails from Asahikawa, on Hokkaido, Japan’s north island—a ski hotbed that was largely spared the devastation from the tsunami that was seen elsewhere in the country.
He’s not a member of the national team, Watanabe said – currently, Yoshida is a student at Nihon University, though his command of the English language is still minimal. (To be fair, it’s certainly better than a FasterSkier reporter’s knowledge of Japanese).
His lexicon did include a few key words: “hard,” which he used to describe the race; “Freeman,” when asked if he knew the identities of any of the skiers he was competing against; and his specialty is “distance long skating.”
While he collected $300 for his podium finish, placing highly wasn’t Yoshida’s prime objective on Saturday. According to Hale, the goal for all three of the Japanese skiers in the U.S. is to lower their FIS points, a standardized measure used by the International Ski Federation to rank athletes worldwide.
That serves as an explanation for why Yoshida lunged for the line with his boot at the end of the race, despite the fact that there was no one around. And while points from the 50 k haven’t been released yet, it’s likely that Yoshida’s effort will rank among his best ever.
“Yuma shocked everybody,” Hale said.
Watanabe was also enthusiastic about Obayashi’s chances on Sunday. A 26-year-old veteran who trained with the XC Oregon club team over the summer, Obayashi has been racing well this year, and was in the mix with a few members of the country’s World Championships team in events in Japan in January.
Having last raced on the World Cup in 2009, it’s tough to imagine Obayashi hanging tough with Kikkan Randall like her teammate did with Freeman on Saturday. But based on Yoshida’s performance, it seems unwise to count her out.
Nathaniel Herz is a reporter for FasterSkier, who also covers city government for the Anchorage Daily News in Alaska. You can follow him on twitter @nat_herz.