10 Questions With Penn State Berks World-Class Snowboarder Kaiya Kizuka
The world of competitive snowboarding may be unfamiliar to most Penn Staters, but for junior Kaiya Kizuka, it’s something she has been involved with for most of her life.
The Sinking Springs, Pa. native traveled to Slovenia recently to compete in the 2021 FIS Snowboard World Championships in the parallel slalom and giant slalom events in which she placed 40th and 45th, respectively. Kizuka has competed internationally at competitions before, and her sights are still set on qualifying for the 2026 Winter Olympics.
We sat down with the Penn State Berks mechanical engineering major to discuss her snowboarding accomplishments as well as her college experience.
Onward State: How and when did you get into snowboarding?
Kaiya Kizuka: I got into snowboarding through my dad when I was 5 years old, so 2004. My dad just basically wanted to have something as a family activity that we could all do together with me, my dad, my mom, and my two other sisters.
OS: What, other than qualifying and participating at the world championships, is a favorite memory from your snowboarding career?
KK: I would say probably being able to travel to New Zealand for one of my junior world championships that I was able to compete at. I got to see a decent bit of the country while I was there, so that experience as a whole was probably one of my favorites.
OS: How did it feel to qualify for the most recent world championships?
KK: It was really cool! It’s always really kind of a surprise, and you know, like the same feeling of getting mail where you’re like, ‘Oh, I got something in the mail today!’ It’s kind of like that but on kind of a higher level. [My family and I] weren’t necessarily really expecting it, and I knew I wanted to ask one of our team managers if I should expect an invite. And before I got the chance to, I just got the invite and I was like, ‘Oh, that’s really cool!’ The first thing that [went] into my mind afterward was, ‘How am I going to get there and when should I accept my invite?’
OS: What was the experience like, competing in another country during a global pandemic?
KK: It was a really foreign and kind of surreal thing. In the days leading up to the event, Slovenia wasn’t letting any U.S. citizens in, so testing standards were more strict. I almost didn’t get to compete because they weren’t accepting my U.S. COVID test, but I was able to compete by getting tested again at the event. Because of this, I missed the first day of training.
Also, the whole hotel we stayed at was closed off to house just athletes and staff, and all of us had to be tested every 48 hours. Because of this, we were able to take our training runs and race runs with our masks off. But, right when they were over, they had to be put back on. It was very safe because of how the organizers planned the event.
OS: How do you juggle your international snowboard competitions with school?
KK: It’s a lot of juggling, a lot of time management. I always let my professors know as soon as I find out [about a competition] so that we have enough time to kind of move things around for me while I’m gone. And then, because everything is online this semester, I am able to take everything with me and continue to work on it so that I’m not super behind on it when I get back. And I’ve done hybrid schooling — both in person and virtually — since my sophomore year of high school, so I can compete and travel and do things. So, I’m kind of in the groove of it now, knowing how to get everything done when it needs to be done.
OS: Why did you choose to attend Penn State after your time at Reading Area Community College?
KK: I knew I wanted to go to school for engineering, and the nice part about RACC is it’s basically 15 minutes away from me. So, I could stay home and be able to travel to Harrisburg where my team trains, and be able to continue to practice while taking classes so I didn’t have to move anywhere new to go to a campus. The same thing with Berks — it’s basically 12 minutes away from me, so I can just take my classes, drive home, and go to practice and keep that schedule.
Also, I was approached by Dr. [Rungun] Nathan in the mechanical engineering program [at Berks]. He asked me why I wasn’t in his program, and I was like, ‘RACC seemed easier to do because they were a lot more flexible with my traveling, and stuff like that.’ Dr. Nathan was like, ‘Oh I’ll help you out if you come over.’ So that was a big driving factor of why I’m here now.
OS: Who or what would you say is a big influence in your life and snowboarding career at this point?
KK: As an athlete role model, I would say Mikaela Shiffrin, with her work ethic and just being really positive overall with her sport, and at the same time dominating as much as she does.
And then—she’s not the overall world cup leader anymore, but she was last year— her name’s Ester Ledecká, and she’s a snowboarder from the Czech Republic. You might have heard of her from the last winter Olympics because she did snowboarding and skiing and then gold medaled in both events, and she’s the first [woman] to do that (at the same Olympic games). She’s kind of the top role model for me.
OS: What are your plans for the future, either with snowboarding, school, or both?
KK: Right now, I’m just more worried about getting this degree finished because I’m so close. After that, it’ll be more driven towards hopefully qualifying for the 2026 Winter Olympics. That’s kind of like my ultimate goal for snowboarding right now, and for my life in general.
And then the engineering degree is almost like my backup plan, as crazy as that sounds, for when I can’t snowboard anymore. What I want to do with that degree is put it into autosports. Primarily, Formula One is what I’d want to put it in and just kind of be an engineer in that field of things.
OS: Have you worked with cars before?
KK: Not really, I just started getting into Formula One last summer. The closest thing I have to experience with that is I’m on State College’s Formula SAE Club and I’m on Penn State Berks’ SAE Baja Club, which is basically just an off-roading car club. In each of those clubs, you’re basically designing a car for different things so that’s the closest thing I have to [experience] right now.
OS: Per Onward State tradition, if you could be any dinosaur, what would it be and why?
KK: I don’t know…Probably a pterodactyl because they can fly.
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