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By Jason Sumner, VeloNews associate editor
Haruko Fujinaka was in the United States on her honeymoon. But instead of heading to the beaches of California or some other romantic destination, the native of Japan made the trip to Big Bear Lake, because just like almost everybody else who drove up Highway 18 this weekend, Fujinaka loved bike racing. Sadly it was that love that ended the 33-year-old’s life, the victim of a bad crash in the Naked Falls section of the Snow Summit Resort downhill course.
“From what I was told, it was just a classic endo,” said Tom Spiegel of Team Big Bear, the local organizer of the opening round of the NORBA National Championship Series that was taking place here in Southern California over the weekend. “This isn’t an overly difficult course compared to some of the others out there. But everybody who is up here knows what they’re getting into.”
According to Big Bear fire department captain Richard Flint, the 33-year-old Fujinaka was unconscious and not responsive to any stimuli when he arrived at the scene.
The Associated Press reported that Fujinaka was then taken to a local hospital before being flown by helicopter to Loma Linda University Medical Center in Riverside County. The Kyoto native was pronounced dead at 11:51 a.m. Deputy coroner Jim Sedgwick said Fujinaka died from multiple injuries, but official cause of death would not be known until an autopsy was performed later in the week.
Fujinaka was registered in the pro category and in 2001 she scored top-10s in the downhill and dual at the Arai, Japan World Cup. But according to Trek-Volkswagen pro Mio Suemasa, who considered Fujinaka a good friend, racing was more of a hobby for Fujinaka.
“This was the first time she ever got to race in America and she was very excited,” said Suemasa, who went to dinner with Fujinaka on Friday night. “She had practiced in the course and thought it was fun.”
Suemasa added that Fujinaka spent her days working for the city government back home in Japan, while her free time was dedicated to riding her motorcross and mountain bikes.
“She was so tough and she never gave up,” added Suemasa, who despite the tragedy qualified ninth on Sunday and was planning on racing the pro downhill final. “She loved it all, downhill, mountain cross. I worked with her a lot back in Japan and she always pushed very hard.”
Team Big Bear’s Spiegel said this was the first time someone had died during the long history of mountain-bike racing at Big Bear Lake, but this is not the first mountain-bike-racing related death in the U.S. An amateur rider lost his life during the mid-90s racing the Kamikaze downhill at Mammoth Mountain, California, and another amateur rider suffered a fatal heart attack at the Mammoth cross country in the late ‘90s. The only other pro rider to die racing was “Earthquake” Jake Watson, who lost his life during downhill practice for California’s Keysville Classic.