It has been 10 days since the tsunami-like news of Sayuri Kinoshita’s passing has ravaged our hearts and minds.  Touching tributes and memorial postings on social media for the petite powerhouse have helped to ease a now seemingly chronic sorrow our freediving diaspora feels awash in.

Yet somehow, her death still seems implausible, and surreal. I want it to be science fiction.

The nagging question of ‘why’ still lingers, perhaps an unanswerable enigma I simply must let go.
In dealing with waves of grief, and reminiscing with friends, I’ve been waxing retrospectively on the incredible flight trajectory of Sayuri’s competitive freediving ascent.

A dark horse in 2014 (photo courtesy of Francesca Koe)
A dark horse in 2014 (photo courtesy of Francesca Koe)

In November of 2014, I had the good fortune of meeting Sayuri on Long Island, in the Bahamas. The then 25-year-old Kinoshita was in attendance for Vertical Blue which was her very first international depth competition. A water baby by familial pedigree, (her parents are swimming instructors) Sayuri had only recently had her inaugural freediving experience under the tutelage of Hanako Hirose – a glamorous freediver that Kinoshita had admired in a magazine. In very short order the mentor/mentee relationship developed into a lifelong friendship as Hanako & Sayuri became inseparable and shared an ebullient bond like playful kittens, and they were equally as charming.

Soul sisters: Hanako & Sayuri (photo courtesy of Daan Verhoeven)
Soul sisters: Hanako & Sayuri (photo courtesy of Daan Verhoeven)

On the topic of science fiction, if you have ever seen the original ‘kaiju’ (or monster) film “Mothra” you will recall there were two, tiny, twins that accompanied Mothra — who would sing to summon this female ‘kaiju‘. These diminutive fairies were called Shobijin meaning “little beauties”. Whenever I would hear Sayuri and Hanako cheer each other on, or sing support to other freedivers, their dulcet tones would always remind me of the sweet voices of the Shobijin. Sayuri’s cute and frequent chants of “GO GO Hanako! GO GO Hanako!” coupled with the twin-like mimicking they’d display in their playful behavior before and after every dive made it seem like Hanako + Sayuri had been in the womb together. Their delightful demeanor was not only fetching it was entirely contagious as entire crowds would end up squealing, giggling and frolicking right along side the infectious duo.

Modern day Shobijin (???) (photo courtesy of Francesca Koe)
Modern day Shobijin (photo courtesy of Francesca Koe)

At that Vertical Blue in 2014, Sayuri set her first national record with a dive to 53m in Constant Weight No-Fins (CNF). It was clear she was going to be a contender as she made her first significant mark in the discipline critics deem the hardest; she went on to increase her depth to 58m at that event and handily secured a pair of titles. As a relative newcomer to the sport, I affectionately dubbed her the “dark horse” since she also stealthily managed to take 2nd place overall that year. It was obvious that Sayuri was just getting started.

Early days of freediving (photo courtesy of Daan Verhoeven)
Early days of freediving (photo courtesy of Daan Verhoeven)

In 2015 Vertical Blue was moved to the month of May, and so a mere six months later Sayuri returned to Deans Blue Hole in the Bahamas with authority — taking home the women’s overall gold for the competition with outstanding performances in every discipline: 60m Constant Weight No-Fins (CNF), 80m Constant Weight (CWT) + 80m Free Immersion (FIM). Sayuri would describe the way she felt when freediving like “being dissolved into the water and becoming one with the sea.

Sayuri places first at VB 2015 (photo courtesy of Howard Holtzman)
Sayuri places first at VB 2015 (photo courtesy of Howard Holtzman)

By Vertical Blue in 2016, a full calendar year later, Sayuri had been implementing a training plan she had formulated with Stefan Randig, which she felt confident would assist in her rapid journey towards the next big milestone. Her objective was to set a new World Record in constant no-fins. On Tuesday, April 26th of 2016 at 12:00 pm EST Sayuri not only achieved her goal, but she made history by garnering the first-ever freediving World Record for Japan.

After realizing her World Record goal at Vertical Blue 2016 Sayuri rode the momentum of her success to take home the overall Silver medal for that year’s elite event. The dark horse was now a full-blown thoroughbred. Despite the discipline and focus required of such tremendous feats of strength, Sayuri always remained joyful and relaxed. During the event, she would joke with the crew, sweetly coach other competitors, and she would always cheer on every single athlete. Chirping encouragement, Sayuri made a point of making everyone around her feel good; she was a master of eliciting smiles.

Sayuri and the local school kids (photo courtesy of Howard Holtzman)
Sayuri and the local Long Island school kids (photo courtesy of Howard Holtzman)

Even though we all love the sport of freediving, I believe what keeps us coming back for more every year are the enduring friendships and the special connections we form at these intense events. I consider myself most lucky to have shared so many meals, so many sweet moments and so much laughter with Sayuri. In addition to being a formidable athlete, Sayuri was a very talented cook. Not to mention her voracious appetite which rivaled that of a whole rugby team!

Dinner with the Japanese contingent (photo courtesy of Misuzu Okamoto)
Dinner with the Japanese contingent (photo courtesy of Misuzu Okamoto)

In 2017, Sayuri returned to the center stage of Vertical Blue for the fourth time and for the second time she lived atop of the leader-board and placed first again overall, taking home the gold medal at VB with strong dives of 68m Constant Weight No-Fins (CNF), 96m Constant Weight (CWT), 83m Free Immersion (FIM). All of the Japanese women killed it at Vertical Blue that year.

The Japanese Woman are SAIKO! (photo courtesy of Howard Holtzman)
The Japanese Woman are SAIKO! (photo courtesy of Howard Holtzman)

In that same year, Sayuri went on to take Gold at the AIDA Individual World Championships in Roatan for constant no fins, garnering the highest admiration from the deepest males in the sport as well. “Sayuri has swimmers feet,” noted Alexey Molchanov during the live stream of the Diveye broadcast at the AIDA world championships. “Sayuri is so efficient and so fast in her descent. She is faster than me! I wish I could be more like her.” exclaimed the Russian champion to fellow Constant Weight No-Fins (CNF) world record holder William Trubridge.

Sayuri ascending to gold in Roatan (photo courtesy of Daan Verhoeven)
Sayuri ascending to gold in Roatan (photo courtesy of Daan Verhoeven)

I think we all wish we could be more like Sayuri, strong yet sweet, kind, playful, dedicated and compassionate. In Sayuri’s world, there are no adversaries, only friends, and allies.

Friendly competition & mutual respect. (photo courtesy of Locksley Cartwright)
Friendly competition & mutual respect. (photo courtesy of Locksley Cartwright)

For the 10th anniversary of Vertical Blue Sayuri had a couple of new goals in mind. While admittedly suffering from sciatic leg damage, which made her first love of freediving, (the No Fins category) virtually impossible to train, the mighty Sayuri managed through the pain stoically to become the only 6th women ever to dive under Constant Weight (CWT) to 100 meters on breath-hold. Then to top it all off, after much volleying back and forth among other female freedivers, Kinoshita staked her claim to yet another world record, this time in free immersion with a dive to 97m, and to do so on the final day of an excruciatingly long competition was even more remarkable.

In the end, Sayuri placed second overall taking home the Silver medal for Vertical Blue 2018 manifesting once again her sheer prowess in freediving. After a long competitive circuit in 2018 (including appearances and medals at the Molchanovs Grand Prix in Ibiza and the CMAS World Championships in Turkey) Sayuri and Hanako were ready to take a much needed break from the pressure and decided to meet some of us in Cyprus in mid-October, to dive just for fun and explore what would become her new favorite location that boasted endless visibility, great people and fantastic food. It was our penultimate gathering for the year.

Freediving family in Cyprus (photo courtesy of Costa Costantinou)
Freediving family in Cyprus: Daan, Francesca & Sayuri (photo courtesy of Costa Costantinou)

Then when we invited Sayuri to join us in Dominica for Blue Element in late November of 2018 we weren’t sure if she was going to be able to make it given opposing schedules, general fatigue, and complicated geographic proximity. However, in the end, the intrepid Kinoshita made it and won the whole event, including the bi-fins challenge, and par for the course, Sayuri made everyone around her feel like the real winners.

We all win when Sayuri is around.
We all win with Sayuri around.

Sayuri was mesmerized by the beauty of the nature found on Dominica. She would giggle with glee at the abundance of fish swimming in the protected cove where we all dove in Soufriere Bay. Exclaiming her love of these fish with such joy, she brought a child-like wonder to us all. This would be the last time I would ever see my friend.

All the fishes! (photo courtesy of Daan Verhoeven)
All the fishes! (photo courtesy of Daan Verhoeven)

Fast forward to April of this year 2019, and because we all knew that Vertical Blue was on hiatus people were opting for a variety of different adventures. I went on an epic glacier trek for two weeks in Patagonia. Much of the water tribe opted for a late April competition in Xibalba, Mexico, Sayuri among them. In a Mayan cenote, Sayuri set her last official world record in the newly sanctioned AIDA discipline of Bi-Fins with a dive to 82m, (following on the heels of Sofia Gomez Uribe’s 81m World Record dive). Sayuri would go on to push her bi-fins depth further to 85m at a training camp in Roatan in early May, but without official World Record judges, it would not be recorded as such. That was okay because we were all planning big things for Cyprus come October.

A bi-fins WR! (photo courtesy of Alex St. Jean)
A bi-fins WR! (photo courtesy of Alex St. Jean)

Sadly, the unimaginable has occurred. And I won’t be meeting up with Sayuri in Cyprus as we originally planned. I don’t know how we come to terms with the loss of someone so vibrant & loving; Sayuri’s impact was much deeper than her athletic accomplishments. The void now an intolerable abyss. I remind myself to try to think of the cherished moments, the silly sweetness and to summon Sayuri’s strength when the sadness creeps in; this life certainly won’t be the same without her. And while we are all definitely the better for having known Sayuri, having been touched by her extraordinary energy, I can’t help but miss her.

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