Editor's note: Tes Sewell is the sport director for Red Bull X-Fighters.
Normally about now I would be writing a preview of Saturday's Red Bull X-Fighters event in Osaka, Japan. This is the first time X-Fighters has landed in Asia, but more important in some ways than the event itself is a man who played a key part in bringing the high-profile freestyle motocross competition to his home country.
It was Eigo Sato's dream to realize this big event on Japanese soil and he was the spokesperson and face of the event in the lead-up late last year and into 2013.
Unfortunately, Sato died at 34 in February while practicing the sport he loved and was never able to witness the amazing spectacle he was so instrumental in setting up.
One person who knew Sato well was FMX rider Andre Villa of Norway. Along with Thomas Pagès and Dany Torres, Villa spent a lot of time traveling from event to event with Sato.
"Eigo was the friendliest guy I ever met," Villa said. "I was friends with him for many years and he never wished anyone anything evil or bad. He was just a genuine real good guy who spread a lot of joy around himself.
"Being the man he was made the whole situation and the whole atmosphere, at the contests we were at, different. If the track was bad or dangerous or whatever, he always had a positive attitude. He was one of the toughest guys in the game. He was so tough when it came to pain, when it came to defeat … with everything. He still carried on and kept this pride and smile on his face and kept on moving forward."
Villa recalled those dark days after his mechanic called him and broke the news about Sato's death in a training accident. After Sato's passing, Villa sprang into action to try to help the family Sato left behind.
"I broke down and cried and was in a little bit of shock because he was one of my very close friends. You try not to think about this stuff, but you know it can happen and that it happened to someone that close to me it made me want to do something," Villa said. "Instead of sitting on my ass feeling sad I just went the opposite way and attacked. 'You know what? I'm going to do everything I can to make a better start for his family, for his wife and two kids.'"
Villa set up a website and launched a donation fund to benefit Sato's family that he said has reached $80,000. "Of course it was tough, but I knew that if I didn't do this, it would take a long time before anyone did it and I knew that I had to act fast to raise as much money as possible," he said.
This was important for Villa to honor the life and legacy of his colleague, fellow competitor and dear friend. Many others in the FMX community have also honored Sato. Before the first X-Fighters stop of the season in Mexico City, the riders brought out a flag with Sato's name and image for a tribute, and Pagès wore Sato's jersey while winning the event.
"Eigo Sato was straight-up freestyle motocross. If there is any rider that should be freestyle motocross, it is Eigo Sato," Villa said. "For him it was never about anything else than the joy of riding his dirt bike. After a while it became also his work to get money for his family, and at the age he was, he still kept going. Many people would maybe think it was a little bit selfish to do that if you have a family -- and I question that stuff myself -- but his family understood that it was really what he loved doing, so he kept carrying on.
"Everything positive in freestyle motocross, you've got in Eigo Sato. He was a good father, a good husband, a good friend, a good rider. He influenced a lot of the professional riders, even if they don't want to say it. He was the guy that people looked at and said, 'Hey, why the f--- do we worry? Look at Eigo: Even if he got eighth place that day, he's a little bummed, but he still keeps going. He broke his leg last year? Whatever, he's coming back.' He was a fighter for sure. So many good words to say about him, but it's just crazy that he's gone."
Through his friendliness, compassion, spirit and FMX skills, Sato was someone riders looked up to. Villa said he was like a big brother he could go to for advice.
"I remember one time when I think I was learning cliffhanger flips. I was hooking my feet in and I felt like I was ready to go and he said, 'You just gotta go. Go, go, go!' He pretty much taught me that trick," Villa said, laughing. "Sometimes you just gotta go, and Eigo? He f------ went."
Eigo Sato's memorial service was a beautiful event in Tokyo's traditional Aoyama Sougisho funeral hall, which is known for celebrating the lives of Japan's politicians and sports stars. X-Fighters judge Drake McElroy and I attended the service after we were unable to attend Sato's funeral in Iwaki the week before because of a scheduling conflict with X-Fighters Mexico.
There was a ceremony during the memorial where each person was asked to take a single flower and lay it on the altar in front of Sato's image and bike. All 500-plus people in attendance went through these same steps. This gave everybody in attendance plenty of time for reflection on Sato's life and influence.
Eigo's wife, Kaori, was a rock. She stood to give a eulogy at the memorial with her 3-year-old son, Eidai, at her side and, though McElroy and I could not understand the words, the sentiment was totally clear. Watching Eidai was possibly the hardest part of the whole affair, as he distractedly wandered around the podium and back and forth to the Sato family in the front row, blissfully unaware of what was really going on. For Eidai it was normal that Daddy was absent for a while, but I wondered how long it would be before he realized that his father had taken a trip from which he would not return.
What my trip to Japan did demonstrate to me was the tight-knit nature of the Japanese FMX community. All of the riders, media and family were there to help the Sato family and each other through the tough times. These are a bunch of rebels in a country that does not celebrate rebellion, a fringe society that lives and plays and works together at something they truly love and willingly share. I think it was the way FMX might have been back in the old days before the money and the fame -- just a bunch of guys and gals hanging around, celebrating each other's successes and being supportive in time of need.
Here in Osaka this week the mood is overwhelmingly positive and the riders are all focused on doing an event that is worthy of Sato's memory. Though he won't be here to fully realize his dream, the dream lives on in the hearts and spirit of all the riders ready to do battle in front of Osaka Castle.
Eigo would be happy.
Red Bull X-Fighters Osaka, Japan, riders list
Tom Pagès (FRA)
Rob Adelberg (AUS)
Dany Torres (ESP)
Levi Sherwood (NZL)
Josh Sheehan (AUS)
David Rinaldo (FRA)
Taka Higashino (JPN)
Javier Villegas (CHI)
Todd Potter (USA)
Adam Jones (USA)
Mat Rebeaud (SUI)
Japan wild card
Competitors vying for the Japan wild card