We bonded over “onara” – which is Japanese for fart. Sayuri surprised me, as she knew the Dutch word for fart, “scheet”. Turns out she’d spent some time with a Dutch family in New Zealand (“all giants”) and the kids had taught her a few essentials.
Onara was a theme in our friendship; whenever there were bubbles in a picture, we’d say “onara”.
Lots of bubbles? Oki onara – big fart. Kusai! (Smell!)
A similar infantile theme gave her her nickname: it has been a long tradition that the Japanese female athlete’s monikers were after the foods their names sounded like, so Misuzu became Miso soup, Tomoka was Tomato, Hanako obviously Bananako, and Sayuri, therefore, was Soy Sauce.
Later on, when she started becoming ridiculously deep and beating the men’s National Record in Constant Weight No-Fins (CNF), we deemed it necessary to add something to her nickname, so she became The Mighty Mighty Soy Sauce.
And mighty she was, going on to set world records in Constant Weight No-Fins (CNF) and Free Immersion (FIM).
Even under those circumstances, there was still room for Onara. She was always silly, even during her breathe up – and especially after the dive.
I mean, some people take this stuff seriously, but there was an inherent playfulness to Sayuri that was always ready to come out – and I reckon that’s what made her great. Yes, she set 2 world records and was the 6th woman to get to 100 meters, but she got there because she was great already. The records and achievements were a by-product of her greatness – not the cause of it.
It’s more how she did it than that she did it. Some champions – maybe not so many in freediving – get to where they are by sharpening their elbows and bullying themselves before others to the finish line. That’s a legit approach, but Sayuri proved there are other ways – you can get there by playing, by giggling, by having fun and supporting others.
At every competition I ever saw her, of all the athletes, she was in the water most, coaching and supporting, cheering on the sidelines. She loved everything about our sport, and I can’t think of anyone who was as universally beloved as she was in the sport. We haven’t only lost one of our greatest athletes, but our greatest cheerleader.
In many ways, she was like water: playful yet graceful, soft but tough, flexible and determined.
And like water, she was deep; her smile was never far from the surface, but underneath that were all the complex emotions that make a person whole.
In between onara jokes, we’d sometimes talk about the depths, how she wanted to do more records, but at some point, she’d want to be a mother. Anyone who’d seen her with kids would have known she would have been a lovely mom. And she wanted to improve her English – when I said her English was fine already, she said: “In English, I’m like a 20-meter diver – I’d like to be a 100-meter diver.”
When she won the Natalia Molchanova award in 2015, she was a bit speechless as well. She and Natalia had a few things in common, one of which was that rare combination of strength and softness – like water.
The last time I saw her, in Mexico, we were 30 minutes down a dirt road when she got a call that she’d forgotten her roommate’s keys in her bag, so we went back. I could sympathize, as my brain’s a Swiss cheese at best, and we still got to play in a cenote before we had to go back for her to receive some gold medals.
Last week, she’d forgotten about the key again – this time in her own apartment. So she tried to get in via the balcony, on the 4th floor. The amazing woman, who gladly fell to 100 meters deep, slipped and dropped 10 meters. It’s a testament to how strong she was that she survived for a few days, long enough for friends and family to join her in the hospital, where she passed surrounded by those who loved her most.
The shock it sent through the community is enormous – she was admired by all that had heard of her and loved by all that knew her. Her death is too big an absence to comprehend, a void in the world, a terrifyingly simple wrong, and no amount of words or photos are going to make that any different – and yet we must go on, as the only cruel solace is that life goes on. The water is still blue, the sea still invites us to come play, our tears will simply dissolve there, making it no less saline. There are no words, only love – maybe some onara…