'His dream too': Saya Sakakibara's triumph over Olympic adversity

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·Sports Reporter
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BMX rider Saya Sakakibara's brother Kai is recovering from a brain injury suffered in a nasty 2020 crash.
BMX rider Saya Sakakibara is continuing her and her brother Kai's Olympic dream, after Kai suffered a brain injury during a World Cup race in early 2020. Picture: Instagram/sayasakakibara

There's no doubt the global pandemic has been top of mind for many Olympic athletes around the world over the last 18 months.

It's almost been an afterthought though, for Australian BMX rider and Olympic hopeful Saya Sakakibara.

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Make no mistake, the 21-year-old has had most of the same worries and stresses about training and competing many have.

It's just that the Olympics paled in comparison to a battle much closer to home.

Weeks before communities around the world were were ordered into lockdowns, the Sakakibara family faced a far more pressing concern.

Saya's older brother Kai, himself an elite BMX competitor with his eyes on the Olympics, had suffered a brain injury in a crash at one of the final World Cup events before the pandemic fully took hold.

In one fell swoop, everything changed. 

Kai was in a coma for eight weeks, before he was moved from hospital in Canberra to the Brain Injury Rehabilitation Unit in Sydney.

More than a year has passed since then - and in good news, Kai has since made significant progress in re-learning major motor functions such as walking and talking.

For Saya, her challenge was getting back on the bike knowing Kai remained in hospital.

"It was a really hard time, because we were doing our Olympic training together, we'd dreamed of going to the Olympics as brother and sister, we'd worked so long to have that taken away so quickly," she told Yahoo Sport Australia.

"There was a fear of if he’s going to make it, if he does what does life look like for him It was a big adjustment.

"Suddenly I had to do all my training alone."

Even with Kai now back on his feet, and even having managed to get back on a bike, Saya still finds herself considering the tragic circumstances that rocked their Olympic ambitions.

Similar to the way racing drivers get back in the car after witnessing rivals have terrible accidents, Saya had to face her return to training in much the same way.

"When I’m trying to train, I would think he’s not here because he was on a hospital bed," the 21-year-old said. 

"It was a really hard adjustment that I’m still trying really hard to accept. 

"What’s made it easier is he has made an exponential recovery over the last few months."

Saya Sakakibara surging ahead after brother's tragic BMX accident

Kai was able to get back on a bike for the first time in February.

It was a crucial moment in his recovery and also in Saya's preparation for the Tokyo Games.

The Oakley-sponsored rider said Kai had been an immensely supportive presence, despite acknowledging the bittersweet fact that their Olympic dream had been a shared one.

"He’s talking, he's walking, he's back on the bike, and he's doing so much better with his cognitive ability as well," Saya said. 

"He's been able to express excitement for me going to the Olympics, kind of passing the baton, saying it’s my time. 

"That encouragement has made a huge difference, had a huge impact on how I approach my training every day. 

"I understand that it was his dream as well, that he wanted to go to the Olympics, he is so passionate about BMX and how far he wanted to go, and has had to give it up and watch me live his dream."

Australian BMX rider Saya Sakakibara is surging towards the Tokyo Olympics with the support of her brother, who suffered a traumatic injury in a race last year. Picture: Supplied
Australian BMX rider Saya Sakakibara is surging towards the Tokyo Olympics with the support of her brother, who suffered a traumatic injury in a race last year. Picture: Supplied

Saya is ranked #34 on the Union Cyclisme Internationale rankings for elite women's BMX riders, and his optimistic that the extra time for training would be beneficial.

After struggling with the initial challenges of maintaining her fitness in the early days of the pandemic, Saya said she came to realise there were advantages as well.

"For me in the early days it was kind of hard, it was like there was nothing to train for," she said. 

"Normally we would have had lead-up events, qualifiers, but all of those were cancelled, obviously. 

"I just focused on keeping healthy, keeping fit, but the break also allowed me to work on areas where I could close the gap between myself and rivals. 

"I really worked on keeping the mindset that I’m still young, there’s every chance I’ll be much faster a year from now."

Yahoo Sport Australia's interview with Saya Sakakibara was organised by Oakley.

Watch 'Mind Games', the new series from Yahoo Sport Australia exploring the often brutal mental toil elite athletes go through in pursuit of greatness:

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