Siren co-founder Kasey Symons speaks to BMX rider Saya Sakakibara who is in France getting ready for the next challenge and chasing the next goal.
The two words that BMX rider Saya Sakakibara kept with her like a talisman during the 2020 Tokyo Olympics gave her the strength to get through an uneasy start.
“I definitely didn’t have a great start, nearly went off the track on the first one, wasn’t able to carry the momentum down third straight on the second one of the first days. And I think that I really could have spiraled in a way where it’s like crap, I’m not doing good, or I’m scared of these riders now. But every time I walked up onto the hill, I just had this one phrase, ‘Just go’.
“Two words I just kept saying repeatedly, over and over in my head where that’s all I focused on. And it was a great phrase to say, because it just brought me back to all I have to do is just trust myself. It doesn’t matter what is around me. I can’t control the wind. I can’t control what the other people are doing. All I have is me. And I just have to go. Just go.”
The lead up to the pandemic-delayed Tokyo Games took a toll on many athletes as uncertainty, restrictions and fear became more prevalent in our lives. For Saya, this was also compounded by the traumatic experience of her brother and fellow BMX rider Kai’s horrific race injury in February of 2020 where he suffered severe brain trauma and permanent damage. He was in a coma for two months.
“When I look back at the last, it’s probably almost two years, I think it’s less overwhelming, because it doesn’t affect me in a way that it overwhelmed me at the time, or right now, but I think it’s just almost like mind-blowing. Like, I say ‘unbelievable’, in a way that it’s like, did that really happen? And did I just like experience all those things? And how did I do that when everything was kind of going wrong with, you know, Kai’s journey, and how did I keep my composure through that whole process? And by the end of it, be able to leave home for three months and train for the Olympics. So it’s just, yeah, almost unbelievable.”
With Australian sports fans following Saya’s story in the lead up to the Games to compete not only for herself, her country and to make brother Kai proud back home as he recovered, the fairytale was set for her to complete. But the thing about sports is, it’s not often written in the stars. Reflecting back on the experience after some time away from racing and training, Saya is open about her mindset during the lead up to the Games, how she took that narrative on board and ultimately, how she had to navigate the unfortunate end to her Olympic journey in Tokyo.
“In the lead up to the Olympics, I didn’t feel that external pressure even though I had a lot of media, and I had that Olympic hype, but I kind of enjoyed it. And I really felt grateful that I was able to tell my story and what had happened the last 12 months and shed some light on my brother’s rehab, and how well he’s going.
“So in the lead up, I definitely didn’t see the media attention as a negative, I really thought that it was a great way to reach out to a wider audience and let people know the dangers of BMX, yes, but actually, when you look at it on an Olympic level, like look how amazing it is!
“But it was like an unconscious kind of story that I made in my head where I wanted to finish that fairytale off with a medal and come home with a great achievement by the end of it. And no one told me that, it’s just kind of the unspoken expectation. It’s just like, wouldn’t that be nice? But I definitely, really wanted that. And although I wasn’t training for the story, I was training for me. To win. But yeah, it’s always hard when you lose.
“But on top of that, you kind of have that second disappointment, where it’s like, ‘oh, man, everyone was following this journey’. And it would have been awesome for the story. So it wasn’t like an added pressure. But it was more the added disappointment at the end when I wasn’t able to achieve what I wanted. And I felt like I had the responsibility to get what I wanted for the rest of Australia as well.
“So I think that’s when, in the interview afterwards—like I was so out of it, but I said I felt like I let everyone down. Because there’s so many people who supported me, I never knew how many people it actually takes to win a medal and how many people actually worked on my journey, especially building my bikes or the mechanic, the physio, or the training partners that I was riding with. And just like all these people gave up their time and energy to support me and it’s just disappointment for that.”
Most Australians following the Olympics would remember Saya’s heartbreaking words after she horrifically crashed out and had us all holding our breath as she lay motionless on the track. It was a moment for the sports-spectating world to also reflect on the pressure we pin on the fairytale narrative in sport. While Saya enjoyed the exposure to her story and her sport, her words and experience of the disappointment on behalf of a nation speak volumes of how this can impact an athlete.
It’s also a chance to remember that while the fairytale-victory is a celebrated part of the ride of following sport, the unpredictability and opportunity to change the course of the story is equally exciting and mostly why we continue to watch. But the payoff for that electrifying moment of unexpected sporting brilliance is that sometimes the story will go in a direction we don’t want it to—and even for the athletes, the story is not always even in their control.
After recovering from a rocky start and employing her mantra, Saya was feeling good. Really good. She was ready.
“The race before I crashed actually, I felt just so good on the bike up until then. I had some mishaps and almost went off the track, had bumps with the other riders, and then really found my groove. Just that race before, I remember coming into that last corner, just feeling that flow, and I remember thinking to myself, this is more me, this is what I came here for, this is what I’ve trained for. And once I’ve reached that stage [I] feel more relaxed—it’s where you can just trust yourself more and you can trust your abilities and what you’ve done.
“So that fear of other people, fear of other external factors, they just kind of blend into the background, because you’re so focused on what you can control and what you can do at that point. I just remember feeling so at peace when I was riding and had this huge boost of confidence.”
It’s encouraging to hear Saya speak her truth like this. On that day, in that moment, Saya did all she could to get her mind right, to correct her ride, to feel fearless and just go. But in the end, she couldn’t control everything, and she couldn’t control her wheel being clipped by US rider Alise Willoughby. The experience now has her getting herself back to the place where she can start the process again because, in sport, the story is not always over, it’s just the beginning of the next chapter.
“It’s not the end, I feel like it’s still the beginning of whatever is supposed to come. But I think with those experiences, I feel like it comes with a lot of challenges still at the moment with getting back on the international scene again and racing. And that element of fear still does exist within me. So it’s just like working through that at each session and trying to just improve every time rather than just staying [in] the same place.”
The next chapter for Saya is focusing on the World Championships in July.
“I’m now based in the south of France with my boyfriend and we’re just training together. That’s the benchmark event that’s where obviously, I want to go for the World Championship title. I really want to do well there. And that race also determines the funding and things like that for next year as well. A lot of things that go into that race. But for me, at the moment, I’m just trying to get my confidence back. I definitely had a big journey after the Olympics with months off the bike, months of no proper training.
“I’ve just been really focusing on trying to do a good week of training and challenge myself. Every time I go on to the track where I’m out of my comfort zone, I’m improving and when I feel like I’m improving, I trust myself more. It’s just getting that confidence back in through the trust and just pushing myself a little bit more each time so once I do get back into racing season, I can trust myself and be able to focus on what needs to be done rather than what can happen and all those external factors.”
As for the words Saya will bring into Worlds?
“The phrase changes for me all the time, every race it changes, but that was what helped me through the fear, and helped me through just being able to switch back to my processes after things didn’t go right at the start.”
So for everyone who needs to get back on the bike so to speak, we can take the lead from Saya and allow ourselves to feel then confront the fear and continue to build and rebuild our confidence to maybe, just go again.