Accomplished BMX rider Yui Hayakawa (4th year, College of Business Administration) has become an evangelist for BMX, spreading the word about the sport with hopes of broadening its appeal. In May 2023, she was named the official ambassador of the Japan BMX Federation. She aims to gain even more BMX fans by offering hands-on sessions for beginners and children at the national championships and series matches where Japan's top riders compete and by promoting the sport in media appearances.
As she spoke about why she loves BMX, her tone became increasingly enthusiastic: “More than anything, the competition is intense, with jumps, high speeds, and riders colliding with each other. And the flow of a race can change dramatically in just 40 seconds or so. As a competitor myself, I guess what I like most is the ability to make friends throughout Japan and all over the world.”
BMX, short for bicycle motocross, traces in origins back to the United States in the 1970s, when a group of young people who longed to compete in motocross began doing tricks on their bicycles. In a BMX race, riders compete for the fastest time on a tough 400-meter course with jumps and other features. BMX bikes are equipped with 20-inch wheels and a rear brake. Even a 0.01-second difference caused by factors like start timing, air time during jumps, and your position when you enter a corner can be the difference between victory and defeat. Because riders may fall and crash at speeds of up to 60 km/h, they are required to wear helmets, goggles, and pads, and BMX has been an official Olympic event since the 2008 games in Beijing.
Hayakawa began BMX when she was 9, taking inspiration from her brother Atsuya, who is two years younger than her. The suburbs of Ibara City in Okayama Prefecture, where she was born and raised, are surrounded by mountains. She and her brother only had their bicycles, and when they rode down the steep hills, the cars they encountered were dangerous. Their parents wanted them to ride their bikes somewhere safer, so they started looking for a suitable place and found a BMX course at Kasaoka Taiyo no Hiroba in Kasaoka City. After that, the family would make the 30-minute drive to the park every weekend. After watching the other riders for a few months, Hayakawa tried a rental BMX bike on a whim. The bike was fast and could fly through the air. Before she realized it, she was hooked.
It didn’t take long for her to get better. In 2011, when she was 10, she won her first race, the 9- and 10-year girls’ class at the Japan Series. After that, her ascent to the top spot was quick, ranking first in the 11- and 12-year old girls’ class in 2013. In 2014, she was named a designated youth athlete and participated in the World Championships (Age Group Challenge Class) for the first time in the Netherlands. Since then, she has been competing in international tournaments every year. “I practiced all day long every day of the week because getting a fast start is a big advantage. Although I am tall for Japan (164 cm), I was the shortest rider overseas. With my size, I can keep my turning radius small in the corners, but the foreign riders use their power to push through the course. Even though there was a difference in body size, I have been able to compete while making the most of my stature,” says Hayakawa. She has repeatedly practiced with elite athletes in Australia and other countries where she has friends, and she has developed her leg strength and burst speed as well as her ability to make quick judgments and hone her technique.
In 2018, while enrolled at Kojokan High School, which organized many domestic and international field trips and had a good support system, she was promoted to the Champion category, the top level in Japan. However, this is around the time when she started to have a change of heart. “Even though I was riding for the joy of it, part of me struggled with the fact that I felt more and more compelled to defeat those who were supporting me,” recalls Hayakawa. She faced an uphill battle competing against foreign riders who were bigger and more experienced, and the higher she rose in the ranks, the higher the barriers became. Even after returning to Japan, she was unable to perform better. Her last victory came at the Japan Series in November 2020, which had been delayed seven months due to the COVID-19 pandemic. “I didn't go on any school trips, and while I was in a high school, I was so devoted to making the Olympic team that I have no recollection of my student life,” says Hayakawa. Only one male and one female rider were selected for the Tokyo Olympics, so when she failed to make the final cut, she said she felt burned out, like there was a blank period of time, and she couldn't motivate herself to aim for the Paris games.
But just getting to the Olympics is not the goal. She says her time at Ritsumeikan has played a major role in helping her reset her thinking. “I came to Ritsumeikan because I was interested in the practice environment and studying business administration in Osaka, but I didn't drop a single credit, learned management, and made friends with whom I could talk about my personal life. My life on campus over the past four years has been truly meaningful and fulfilling.” According to Hayakawa, Japan needs to build a more solid foundation and create more excitement to bring BMX in Japan closer to international riders. She was acutely aware of this when she was offered the job of official ambassador while she was still in university.
The BMX season runs from April to October. The national championships are held once a year, and the matches for the Japan Series are held about once a month throughout the country. Along with publicity activities, Hayakawa never misses an opportunity to spread the word ahead of matches and hold hands-on workshops at race venues. “Compared to the U.S., Europe, and Australia, where the infrastructure is already in place, BMX is still not well known in Japan, and there are fewer venues where races can be held. It is important to get children who have never actually ridden before to get on bikes and come to the competitions. I hope more people from the general public will come because it's something you can start very easily, ” she remarks. Hayakawa, who has also joined a talent agency, makes media appearances, and she engages in awareness-raising activities with a focus on the ties with the local community.
Every weekend since she was a child, her father Yasuhiro drove her, her mother Hiroe, and her younger brother to practices and to race venues across Japan. “Participating in competitions has always been a family affair. I really enjoyed it, and I have a lot of great memories. It brought the family closer together. There are so many ways to enjoy BMX,” she recalls. While Hayakawa is grateful to her parents, she regrets that so many young people are leaving the sport due to the cost of bikes and parts that wear out quickly and the expenses you have to incur to commute to practice sites and race venues. This is why she travels around Japan to build momentum for the sport.
Finally, Hayakawa concluded this interview with a big surprise. She told us she is still practicing and will compete in the national championships again this year. “I hope I can win in my first competition back from my hiatus. I want to keep wearing two hats, as both a rider and an ambassador, and I also want to be a mentor for children, which is something I didn’t have when I was younger.” In this way, Hayakawa is taking the first step toward her newfound purpose.
Profile: Yui Hayakawa
Hayakawa was born in Ibara City, Okayama Prefecture on August 11, 2001. She graduated from Kojokan High School. She began BMX when she was nine and won her first tournament in Japan at the age of 10. She won several top-level domestic tournaments and competed internationally, but narrowly missed out on the Tokyo Olympics. She continues to promote BMX as an official ambassador for the Japan BMX Federation, a position she was appointed to in May, and as a member of the talent agency cent.FORCE ZONE. Her hobbies include taking walks, which she uses to spend time thinking. She is good friends with Kanami Tanno of Waseda University, who is competing for the top spot in Japan, and they have even visited Kyoto together. Her dream is to travel abroad without her bicycle for a change. Her younger brother Atsuya took third place at the U23 national championships in July. Her uncle, the entertainer Nobu from Chidori, always encourages her to try many things.