“The More These Good Things Add Up…”: Sarina Satomi of Badminton Wins Two Brilliant Gold Medals
By the time the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games drew to a close, Japan had won a total of nine medals (three gold medals, one silver medal, and five bronze medals) in the new badminton event, in an incredible display of skill.
It was Sarina Satomi of the Wheelchair (WH1) class who won two of the gold medals, thus becoming a symbol of Japan’s strength in badminton. 23 years old, with an exuberant voice and a bright smile, Satomi is ranked No. 1 in the world in both the Singles and Doubles events. Before the Paralympic Games, she’d told the media, “I’m winning gold for both!” And amazingly enough, she made it happen.
“To Be Honest, I Was Scared”
For Satomi, who started playing para badminton in 2017, the Paralympic Games posed a mental battle. Since winning the Singles event of the Total BFW Para-Badminton World Championships in 2019, she’d become the defending champion. Though she said she didn’t feel any pressure, she had—naturally—begun to feel like she had to win a gold medal. Her hands began to tremble every time she thought about the Paralympic Games. “To be honest,” she said, “I was scared.”
It was in the Singles preliminary league of this Paralympic Games, however, that this fear turned into motivation. In her second match, she’d lost to Yin Menglu of China—an opponent she’d been fairly confident she’d be able to beat. Satomi told us, “It’s not like I underestimated her or anything…” And yet, she found herself not as energetic as usual during the match, less aggressive.
It was Satomi’s family and trainer who supported her through this unexpected loss, which shook her mentally. After the match, Satomi called them herself, chatting with them about really nothing at all.
“I was able to sort of reset myself mentally in that moment. It was hard just on my own. I kept thinking about what my brother said: ‘Don’t make us nervous.’”
Indeed, in the quarter-finals that followed, Satomi played aggressively, besting Karin Suter Erath (Switzerland) 21-8, 21-9 in an overwhelming victory. Her next match was a rematch against Yin Menglu. Satomi won both games 21-18, redeeming herself in the face of her loss and making her way into the finals. In the meantime, in the Doubles event—occurring in parallel to the Singles event—she and her partner Yuma Yamazaki made it all the way to the finals without a single loss, their near-synchronized calls echoing across the courts.
A Comeback Victory, Borne of Her Drive to Win
Satomi maintained her concentration in the finals match, even when faced with a dire situation
And so it was that she found herself in the Singles finals match on September 4. Her opponent was Sujirat Pookkham, a player that Satomi had long admired, and who had wanted to beat since she’d made her international debut. Satomi had once said of Pookkham, “She’s precise; she doesn’t lose for nothing.” And true to that evaluation, Pookkham had made it all the way to the finals without losing a single game.
The first game saw Pookkham with the advantage, playing near the net. The 35-year old long-timer, who usually played in relative silence, was more vocal this time around, landing precise shots that fell right along the lines of the court. Reflected in her voice was her passion and determination to win a gold medal, as a culmination of her 13 years spent playing para badminton. Satomi, who lost the first game 14-21, found herself in a bind when she then lost nine consecutive points to Pookkham in the second game. The score, which had been 15-9, was now 15-18. The pressure was on.
Satomi, however, did not panic. She called out even louder as she made her shots, which allowed her to focus on each and every shot—telling us later, “I knew I just had to go for it, as hard as I could. Struggle for it.” She withstood a number of long rallies, eventually bringing her score even with Pookkham, 18-18. Though there weren’t any spectators, there were members of the Japan national team and Japanese volunteers in the venue. They called out to her, “You can do it!” and indeed she did, taking the second game from Pookkham in an astounding comeback victory. Spurred on by her coach, who told her, “From here on out, it’s about which person wants it more,” the third game saw Satomi moving Pookkham back and forth vertically on the court. She went on to win the game 21-13, clinching her victory. In that moment, the venue echoed with shouts of “Yes!” and soon, Satomi’s eyes were brimmed with tears.
“It really feels like a dream. I’m so happy I can’t believe it. This whole time I’ve been working towards this moment of this day, so to be able to win the gold medal I’ve been aiming for—it’s the best feeling ever.”
The finals match for the Doubles event was held a day after the Singles finals match. Satomi and Yamazaki played Yin Menglu and Liu Yutong of China, a duo known for their speed, and won the match 2-1 (16-21, 21-16, 21-13), granting Satomi a Singles/Doubles double victory. The pair weren’t able to show off much of the rotation work they’d been working on in their training. What came through, however, was Satomi’s drive and determination as she continued to repel and fight back against Menglu’s targeted attacks—with her telling us later, “I knew I had to do it.” In clinching this victory, Satomi also fulfilled her wish to get Yamazaki—who’d won bronze in the Singles event—a gold medal around her neck.
“I’m Glad I’m in a Wheelchair,” That Kind of Life
Satomi beamed with joy after winning the Doubles event with her partner Yamazaki (right)
Reminiscing on her journey to the gold medal, Satomi told us, “Back when I was able-bodied, I would’ve never been able to imagine being where I am now.” Satomi had been involved in a traffic accident in 2016. She’d spent a period of time after that holed up at home, not wanting her friends and acquaintances to see her in a wheelchair. Her father, concerned for her wellbeing, had used badminton as a—rather aggressive—tool to get her outside of the house.
Eventually, however, she’d found herself drawn into the world of badminton. And here she was now, a gold medalist. Satomi’s mother told us that her father, upon witnessing his daughter’s victory on TV, had cried with joy. “I haven’t really ever seen my dad crying. It makes me glad that I’ve been doing this,” Satomi said, tearing up.
She went on, “The more these good things add up, little by little, the more I can start to feel like, ‘I’m glad I’m in a wheelchair.’ I want my life from here on out to be the kind of life where I can think, ‘I’m glad I’m in a wheelchair.’ That’s what I’ve been thinking about recently.”
edited by TEAM A
text by Yoshimi Suzuki
photo by Getty Images Sport