Two Australian titles, a free trip to the Grand Nationals in the USA, crashing out in her first Aussie appearance at the UCI BMX World Championships and a second place on debut at the UCI…
Two Australian titles, a free trip to the Grand Nationals in the USA, crashing out in her first Aussie appearance at the UCI BMX World Championships and a second place on debut at the UCI BMX Supercross World Cup.
That’s the short summary of 2016 for rising BMX star Saya Sakakibara.
The schoolgirl from Helensburgh, a northern suburb in the Illawarra region of NSW, has already chalked up a list of results that are the envy of her peers. At 17-years-of-age, Saya has started to the travel the world thanks to BMX and is driven by an unwavering desire to prove she has what it takes to be among the best in the world.
Ask Sakakibara what her long-term goal is and she will tell you without an ounce of hesitation that she plans on racing at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Competing at the world’s biggest and most ancient multisport event is something she says has been the goal since BMX was first contested at the 2008 Beijing Games.“I see myself racing at Tokyo 2020, it’s been a goal for a long time,” Sakakibara affirmed.
“Ever since 2008 I was blown away by the racing at that level and from then on it was my goal. I will be 21-years-old that year, and I expect I will be ready to perform at my best should I get the chance to race there.”
To many, such lofty goals early on in a career may seem like Sakakibara is getting ahead of herself. To the contrary, she has a list of results that is highlighted by world titles in the 14-years to 16-years age groups while competing for Japan, her mother’s native country.
Perhaps it’s premature to earmark Sakakibara as Olympic material, with ‘only’ a trio of age-group world titles to her name, but leading into the 2016 there were three nations chasing her signature, and a future with her as one of their riders.
As age group riders Sakakibara and elder brother Kai both embraced their heritage and raced for Japan. While there are obvious strong ties to Japan, the pair was also eligible to race for Great Britain thanks to their English father.
With riders needing to nominate the nation they wish to represent prior to their time as an elite rider, be it junior or senior, Saya had offers from all three. She admits that while choosing to ride for Australia was the best option for her, there were moments throughout 2015 that she thought she might elect to stick with Japan, or even switch to Great Britain.
“It was a very big decision not to ride for Japan, and the thinking of where I would ride started long before this year,” she said.
“It was probably the start of 2015 that I began to weigh up my options, and I reached out to a lot of people to help me, including my current coach Luke Madill, British coach Luke White and Japanese coach Masahiro Sameei. They all helped me.
“There were good opportunities with all three. At some points I would hear about what was going on in Manchester with the Great Britain program, then what Japan had and I was drawn to each of them at certain points.
“But what it came down to was where I thought I belonged and how comfortable I felt in the country. All my family, coaches and supporters were in Australia, so at the end of the day I went with my heart.”
By the time January 1, 2016 rolled around Sakakibara was a fully fledged Australian rider for the first time. She made the transition from the 16-years girl’s challenger class to the junior elite women’s competition, and was lining up on the gate at Nerang BMX Club for round one of the BMXA National Series.
Many riders find the transition from challenger to the elite class overwhelming, and take some time getting used to the standard expected of them. From the moment the gate dropped on January 1, it looked like Sakakibara had bypassed the mental and physical hurdles of making such a significant move up in competition. On debut she convincingly won the opening two rounds of the National Series.
Then she won rounds three and four in similar fashion. By round five and six it wasn’t a question of if she would win, rather by how much. Come a sweltering week in Bathurst in March, round seven of the series was a fait accompli, as was the national championship and Grands Challenge. An historic treble was in the bag.
Sakakibara also spent some time at the National Championships mentoring younger riders.
However the fast, calculated competitor that sealed both the Australian National Series and National Championship in Bathurst, revealed that she felt the same nerves as everyone else transitioning out of age group riding. The key difference being an injection of confidence from wins in Nerang that set up a season of dominance.
“I was nervous before Nerang, competing in the junior elite women’s class was equally nerve wracking and exciting,” Sakakibara outlined.
“I knew in my mind that I was racing people that I have raced against for a long time, they were just a year older than me. It was also exciting to be riding with so many other talented riders.
“It crossed my mind after Nerang that I had the ability to take the series and maintain a winning streak. But I kept reminding myself that every track is different, and I couldn’t let my guard down. I kept training and pushing hard.”
A Bump in the Road
Over the weeks that followed the focus for Sakakibara, and 79 other Australian riders was the 2016 UCI BMX World Champion- ships in Medellin, Colombia. From 80 riders Australia won six world titles, nine silver, three bronze and had 17 finalists, but the name ‘Saya Sakakibara’ didn’t feature anywhere on that honour roll.
Colombia did not go to plan for Sakakibara.
World’s did not have an ideal outcome for Sakakibara (Pic: Saya Sakakibara Facebook)
Earmarked as a BMX prodigy, she crashed out during practice on successive days. The non-result left her shaken and devastated at missing an opportunity to prove herself against a crop of riders, who will more than likely go on to be the world and Olympic champions of tomorrow.
“I was very nervous being the only junior girl from Australia. I had been very excited and was feeling good after my year in Australia, but worlds didn’t go to plan,” laments Sakakibara.
“Crashing in practice one on the first jump left me shaken up and scared. I was a little frightened of the track and was very down on myself. That night I told myself that I had done this before, I had raced off an eight-metre hill and my body could do it. I just needed to convince my mind too.
“I came back refreshed the next day, but practice didn’t go well again. I crashed and knocked myself out. Both my dad and Luke (Madill) told me that the paramedics weren’t going to let me race. It was devastating to see all my hard work go to waste and not get to test myself on the world stage.
“Looking back I realised that on that track I had been struggling on the second and third straights too. I was practicing at the same time as many of my idols; there was a lot of pressure and a lot going on. It was overwhelming practicing with elite riders.
“It made me appreciate the level of skill needed to race at such a high level.”
On June 23, 1894, Frenchman Pierre de Coubertin of officially established the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the ‘Olympic Movement’ at the Paris International Congress, organised by de Coubertin at the Sorbonne.
In the lead up to the fourth Olympiad, the 1908 London Games, de Coubertin was the author of a phrase that has since characterised the Olympic Games and what they mean to many.
“The important thing in life is not triumph, but the fight; the essential thing is not to have won, but to have fought well.” Pierre de Coubertin. It’s a mantra that can be applied to anyone, whatever their pursuit in life.
It is a line of thought that highlight’s what Sakakibara did next after her world championship heartbreak. She went from the lowest of lows to surfacing again internationally four months later to unequivocally announce herself to the world, and riders who had been racing the Olympic final in Rio just weeks earlier.
Desperate to prove her ability as a rider, Sakakibara and coach Luke Madill put together a plan that would see the youngster contest the elite women’s contest at the final two rounds of the UCI BMX Supercross World Cup. Dual Olympian and fellow Aussie Caroline Buchanan had won the first two rounds, Dutch rider, the 2012 Olympic bronze medallist and 2016 Olympic finalist, Laura Smulders, the third.
In the penultimate round Sakakibara made her world cup debut. And if she had been intimidated practicing against her idols in Colombia, the event in Rock Hill was a jump into the deep end; she was not only sharing the track in practice, but was racing them for keeps.
Leanna Curtis celebrates with Sakakibara following her breakout second place finish.
But things were different this time around. At just 17, against not just the best juniors in the world, but the best female riders, Sakakibara finished second. Only Smulders could beat her. Olympic finalists from Rio, Russian Yaroslava Bondarenko and American Brooke Crain, were left in her wake.
“I couldn’t believe it, I looked up and I was speechless. Someone could have told me it was only a practice session and I would have believed it,” she recalled.
“During the flower ceremony I felt like I never have before, it was an awesome feeling. I want more of it.”
A week later at the year’s final Supercross round in Sarasota, Sakakibara showed glimpses of the same form before eventually bowing out in the semi finals and finishing ninth. It was hardly crashing back to earth but it was a valuable lesson that competition at the top is a week-in, week-out grind.
Proving her ability on the world stage is something Sakakibara consistently talks about. Perhaps it’s the marque of an athlete that is aware she has what it takes to be at the very pinnacle of BMX. Maybe it’s the buzz from a strong result following hardship. Either way, she knows that BMX is the sport she was made for.
“I absolutely want to make a name for myself among the elite riders. Being an elite is a massive step,” Sakakibara said.
“In the future my ultimate goal is to make a career out of this and so testing myself against the world is something I wanted, so I could see where I was at.
“Now I know how I can improve and work on my career.”
For now the immediate focus for Sakakibara will be another Australian season, and finishing school. From there, the dream of making a career of BMX beckons.
It may just be sooner than this teenager first anticipated.
This article first appeared in the November edition of The Dirt – READ IT HERE