Interview with an Olympian | Erika Yamasaki

Interview with an Olympian | Q&A with Weightlifter and QSMC client, Erika Yamasaki

We were very excited to sit down and chat with Olympian, Erika Yamasaki in the few weeks leading up to her first Olympic appearance. She is competing in the Women’s 55kg Weightlifting category. She is on debut today, Tuesday 27th July at 12:50pm AEST.

When did you first start getting involved in Weightlifting?

In the year 2000, so about 21 years ago. My 20 year anniversary would have lined up really well if the Olympics went ahead last year. I was going to make it a big thing but then you couldn’t really do that with covid.

What age were you when you started and did anything push you into weightlifting?

I was 13. Well, 12 – just about to turn 13. We had a talent identification officer come out to our school and my brother who was in the PE class doing TID (talent identification development) did really well. So then during the lunch break, they saw me on the playground and pointed out that I was his sister. They asked me to come in and give weightlifting a go as well. I lifted my body weight the first time I touched a bar. I didn’t really know what weightlifting was at the time haha. So I guess to clean and jerk your own body weight the first go is pretty outstanding. After that, anyone who did well in TID got a 3-month scholarship at their closest gym. That’s when I started at Cougars Weightlifting Club, and I’ve been there ever since basically. If it wasn’t for my brother doing it, I never would have done it. Unfortunately, he had to stop due to injury, and he also stopped progressing. But he did represent Australia at the Oceania Championships.

Did the influence come from your parents? 

No haha, both of my parents were actually gymnasts. So Dad represented Australia and Mum represented Queensland! They both knew what it was like to be elite gymnasts and I don’t think they wanted my brother or I to go down that same path. We did gymnastics growing up just for fun, but they never really encouraged us to go down the elite path.

Does your family try to attend your events?

Yeh, anything in Brisbane they will usually come. When I was younger they travelled interstate with me to watch. They’ll try to come to as many comps as they can.

At what age did you want to take up weightlifting professionally? 

I guess it’s hard to pinpoint. A lot of us think that you never really become a ‘professional’. Because most of us work full time or study full time as well. Probably leading into the 2006 Commonwealth Games I really started giving it a bit more. I was finishing High School so it was a good time for me to put a bit more effort into Weightlifting and a bit more focus.

How important is looking after your body to your performance? 

It’s definitely extremely important. I suppose when I was younger it wasn’t something I put first. As I started to get older, you know 26 and above, I didn’t recover as fast and things got a lot harder for sure. So then I started to realise I needed to put my body first. Especially with recovery, stretching and all that stuff. I needed to start eating properly. 

I think it’s because it’s a weight class sport and I’ve been doing it for so long now. Your body weight does fluctuate quite a bit. So I’ve had to do a lot of quite big cuts. For Rio I cut down to the 48kg class. That’s definitely a part of the sport that I struggle with. 

I’m 34 this year, my body is just not recovering nowhere near as fast as what it used to. I’ve been having a few back and knee problems that are just consistent. And that’s not something I can get rid of unless I stop training. Getting Shane to help me every couple of weeks really does help go a long way and it’s helped hold my body together.

What number Olympics is this for you? 

This is my first! It’s very exciting. I probably would’ve had better chances for Rio but I got injured and so I couldn’t compete.

Did anyone inspire you as a young athlete? 

Probably my Dad. He’s always been someone who’s been passionate about sport and always encouraged me to find whatever it is I’m good at and stick to it. He’d always try to help me improve or work on things that could possibly help me, like breathing techniques. He’d also help me with mental rehearsal and all that stuff. I guess being a high-level gymnast himself he understands the same kind of pressures. It was always his dream to go to the Olympics, which he never got to do. Going to the Olympics is kind of like I’m doing it for him too.

Is there any advice you’d give to your younger self? 

I feel like maybe I took things for granted a little bit. It’s almost like I was too gifted in weightlifting in a negative way. Looking back I think I could have given it more, trained harder, worked harder at keeping my body healthy and all that sort of stuff. Yeh, just given it a bit more. Back then I’m not sure if it would have changed any outcomes. I know I’ve achieved a lot but a part of me will always wonder what more else I could have done.

Is there a career highlight you look back on? 

There’s probably a few. The two biggest ones would probably be winning the Bronze medal at the Commonwealth Games in 2006. And be the first, and only woman still, to be able to clean and jerk double bodyweight. I did that in 2019. So I clean and jerked 106kg in the 53kg weight class. I guess that’s a huge milestone in Australian weightlifting as well. Another big moment for me was winning my first gold at the Pacific Games and hearing my National anthem standing on an international podium. I grew up with and competed a lot against a woman from Papua New Guinea who was just always that one step ahead of me. It was always her national anthem that I heard so it was bittersweet to finally beat her and hear my own.

Do you have a favourite place to compete? 

Any place with a good, supportive crowd is always great. The two main places I’ve competed have always been Cougars Weightlifting or Hawthorn Weightlifting Club in Melbourne. They’re usually the two biggest venues for us to compete at. At either of those, I feel at home. Those clubs tend to draw a lot of friends and family which is great. I guess I’ve also been in weightlifting for so long now that people from interstate have become like family so the support in Australia is really good for me. So anywhere I really go in Australia feels like home.

During COVID-19, how did you stay motivated to continue training? 

To be honest, I didn’t hahah. It was really hard. During the end of the Olympic qualifying period (last year), I’d just done my fifth event out of the sixth I needed to do, and I secured my spot in the 55kg division. That happened in February. I would just have to weigh in at the sixth event and I would have been selected. So you know after that it was really just a rollercoaster ride. They were tossing up between sending the team and then cancelling, or even postponing or cancelling the Olympics. That fight over which way it was going to go went on for so long. It was hard not knowing what was going to happen and in my head I really just thought the Olympics were going to be cancelled. I felt really disheartened – it was a big sore spot at the time. Training at home was difficult, everything felt so much heavier. I’m probably not the best at giving a motivational answer to that one hahah.

Were there any state competitions held so people could stay prepared? 

There was a big gap in between them. They did have some comps sporadically during that period when we were able to have events. In some cases I didn’t feel ready because I hadn’t been training as well and wasn’t at my best.

What are you looking forward to the most about going to the Olympics? 

I think I’m most excited about taking it all in and taking away from it as much as I can. I know that this experience is going to be very different from any other Olympics. I’m also excited about seeing my teammates compete. We didn’t think we’d get the opportunity to watch one another but it looks like we might be able to. We’ve all been down the same road so to be able to support one another up on the big stage will be great. We want to enjoy all the hard work we’ve put in together.

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