If you have been in the sport for some time, you will know the name Erika Yamasaki — arguably one of the best Australian weightlifters of the past two decades.
Erika has paved the way for so many of the younger generation. She has done this not only on the physical side of weightlifting but the mental and emotional side as well.
After being scouted from school at the age of 13, Erika clean & jerked her body weight (about 35kg) the first time she picked up a bar. This moment would set the pace for her weightlifting journey from then on. Little did she know how much of an impact this sport would have on her life — eventually becoming a significant factor in saving her life.
“My first ever medal at a big international was at the 2006 Commonwealth games,” Erika tells The Weightlifting Platform. This was obviously a career highlight for Erika, but she says her proudest moment came in 2015, when she became the first woman in Australia to clean & jerk double bodyweight — 106kg at just under 53kg bodyweight.
“That whole year, I knew I could clean it. I hadn’t jerked it yet but I knew I was capable of doing both, so just the pressure of knowing I was capable of doing it but not ever performing it on the platform was in the back of my mind every time I competed.”
Almost five years on, Erika’s feat still has not been matched.
Amazingly, Erika has gone on to compete in the 2006, 2010 and 2014 Commonwealth Games and a host of other international events including multiple IWF World Championships.
Today, Erika is on track to reach her lifetime dream of being an Olympian and representing Australia at the pinnacle of the sport. She is in a realistic position to qualify heading into her final two qualifying competitions. In fact, she’s in a great position in two weight categories (55kg & 59kg) which is going to give her a massive advantage coming into the final months.
She missed out qualifying for the 2016 Olympics — and then for the 2018 Commonwealth Games — due to being plagued with injury after the 2015 World Champs. Around the same time, Erika was also dealing with the stress of being in an abusive relationship, which she has since left. At the time, she felt she was unable to talk to her friends or family about it. This exacerbated her stress and anxiety while trying to keep up appearances in weightlifting leading into the 2016 Olympics.
“I feel quite happy to speak about it now. I guess it’s a period of my life that maybe could help others. As much as there are great things that I have experienced in my lifting career, everyone goes through tough times.”
Erika also suffered serious physical setback after rupturing a couple of discs in her back, and then, in training, dropping a loaded bar onto her knee. Making the decision to drop to the 48s to hold onto a chance to still qualify for the 2016 Olympics was a tough one, but it had to be done. Unfortunately, not a lot went her way that year, and for the final qualifier and she lost the top-ranked spot.
“This was probably one of my biggest disappointments in my weightlifting career,” Erika explains.
“I wanted to go back to the Commonwealth Games in 2018, especially after winning a medal in my first games and because it was in my home state. But mentally I just didn’t have it in me. I was struggling a lot with depression and anxiety.”
Once the 2020 Olympic qualifying standards were released, Erika thought she had an outside chance. But given she was still not training consistently and not lifting very heavy, it was a daunting thought. But being half Japanese, and the Olympics being in Tokyo, she saw the event as having a bit of a home country feel to it, and this gave her the motivation she needed to start pulling herself out of the rut she had fallen into.
At this time, Erika was still finding it tough to even walk into a weightlifting gym.
“A lot of the time, when my anxiety was really bad, I’d get to the gym at 4pm and fall asleep in the car,” Erika explains. But as her numbers started going up and she started feeling good about training, it made it easier to get into the gym and out of her anxiety.
Erika’s comeback has been inspiring since she made the decision in 2018 to push for the Olympics.
“This year  feels like I’ve just been able to hold on. I just qualified for the Arafura Games. I just made it for Pacific Games. I just made it for World Championships. I feel like I’m holding on by my teeth.”
“I just hope that I can get back on my feet this year and continue to hit the marks that I need for Tokyo and hopefully show everyone that no matter what you go through and no matter how hard life is, it can always turn around. And this is coming from someone that, in 2018, I tried to take my life.”
“I know now that no matter how down or upset I get, things can take a turn. I know that if I ever get to that stage again, I will reach out and get help.”
What does success look like for Erika, heading into the new decade?
“Success would be any form of happiness. Whether it’s the feeling you get from being on the platform, getting on that podium, hitting any PB, a qualifying total. To me anything like that has been a success.”
But the most important success, Erika explains, lies in helping others, having a positive impact on their life or their weightlifting. “To me, that’ll be a bigger success than the other stuff.”