“Just normal”

Josh Ye | Photos by Wenhao Wu 

Hibiki Sakai may not look like everyone else, but challenge him at a soccer match or a game of chess and he’ll show you what he’s made of.

Hibiki Sakai is the kind of friend who will recount embarrassing story after embarrassing story about himself if it means making you laugh. With his short, black hair and glasses, he’ll start chuckling before he even gets out the first sentence.

He’s also the kind of friend who pours wine for you at a party, gives you Italian bread with olive oil when you’re hungry and plays off-brand Jenga with you when you’re bored.

Most people can recognize Sakai on campus, so if all of that appeals to you, just say hi. But he’s not all fun and board games — despite being a United States Chess Federation national master and the vice president of Pitt’s chess club.

Though he can’t button his shirt on his own or do a header on the soccer field without stressing his fused neck vertebrae, the junior psychology major can — and will — school you with a trick shot. And if you stick around long enough, he’ll be the kind of friend to push you harder in the Pete. 

“Josh, try to cut your running time in half and run twice as fast. It will be more effective that way because [your heart] has to reach a certain heart rate for your cardio exercise to truly be effective,” Sakai told me. 

With 14 years of experience on the field under his belt, Sakai is a pretty fair trainer. His advice is worth following — even if it means having to run faster.

Soccer is Sakai’s passion, which he started playing when he was 7, sticking to “you know, the little league stuff.”

In high school, he stayed with the junior varsity team all four years instead of moving to varsity because “you know, those guys are huge. You don’t want to die.”

At 5 feet tall and 112 pounds, Sakai isn’t keen on getting crushed by men twice his size. He has an illustrious injury record on his own. You know, breaking the tibia on his right foot twice, which pushed him to train his left foot. 

Now, when he’s in a bind on the field, he can switch from right to left to send the ball across the field or sweep a corner kick.

“Do you know Ángel Di María? The Argentinian guy? He played for Madrid few years ago — really incredible left foot,” Sakai said.

But Sakai didn’t have his first soccer idol until age 12, when his father brought him a Ricardo Kaká jersey from Milan, Italy. When Kaká signed with Real Madrid in 2009, Sakai said he pledged his loyalty to Madrid, which irritates his older sister — a Lionel Messi fan.

If you ask, Sakai just might admit that Messi is the best of all time — “But I can’t like him. He plays for Barcelona. I am a Madrid fan.”

Sakai plays pick-up soccer games with the Hooligan Soccer Club, Pitt’s amateur soccer club, at the Cost Sports Center twice a week. Minding height differences, Sakai plays to his strength — he keeps his center of gravity low to protect the ball and dribble his way between opponents.

But he still gets squashed between the turf and a sweaty, college-age soccer player every now and then. He’ll tell you about that one guy, “oh, man,” who was “5’8” and 180 at least,” explaining, “I tried to put my shoulder into him, and I just fell over. I didn’t have any mass.”

But he is not entirely inculpable for all his embarrassing stories. 

Sakai said when he’s playing casual pick-up games, he’ll perform the audacious “nutmeg” move — a soccer trick that aims to trip up opponents by sending the ball between the opponent’s legs. With an unnecessarily flashy move like the nutmeg, Sakai said, you either humiliate your opponents or humiliate yourself.

“I just try to do as many nutmegs as possible,” Sakai said with a chuckle. Needless to say, he doesn’t take his field time too seriously — it’s all about having fun.

Sakai said despite his casual attitude toward soccer, he’s trying to become more physical in his game — he hits the Petersen Events Center gym to tone up and build muscle.

He said he’s sick of getting boxed out on the field and wants to work out at least four to five times a week but “in reality, it never happens” with his busy schedule.

But in February, he made it to the Pete for an after-class arm workout that unintentionally pumped up someone else more than it did him.

“I was doing the lat pulldown exercise at the Pete. Some random guy came up to me — 6 feet tall and massive,” Sakai said. “He said something … along the lines of, ‘Yo dude, you are a crazy beast. You are a great motivation.’”

This is the story Sakai wouldn’t tell you for laughs. He would tell you that, on that day, he had received a compliment he didn’t deserve.

All he had to do to motivate that “tall and massive” guy was have a congenital defect.

It is nice that people see him as a motivation, Sakai said. But it will be nicer if you see him as, “you know, like everybody else.”

“Just normal,” Sakai said.