BMX world No.1 almost quit the sport because of fear

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As a world No.1, Saya Sakakibara’s biggest rival is the BMX rider she sees in the mirror: herself.

The 24-year-old is Australia’s gold medal hope at the Paris Olympics, but she doesn’t shy away from being deeply human.

“I feel fear a lot,” Saya told 60 Minutes.

“I am scared of crashing. I don’t love getting up to that top of the start hill and seeing that it’s windy.

Saya Sakakibara says fear has been her greatest rival in the dangerous sport of BMX. (Nine)

“I don’t love the feeling of nerves. In the heart, it’s just really, really uncomfortable.

“But I love the feeling of pushing past that and getting to the other side and feeling like, yes, I could do it, and I’ve won the battle against myself.

“That’s the most important thing for me.”

It’s a battle Saya almost lost – quitting the incredibly dangerous sport she loves.

But you couldn’t blame her if she did give it away.

Saya’s older brother, Kai, is a living example of the dangers on the professional BMX track.

He lives with a traumatic brain injury after almost dying in a crash in the lead up to the Tokyo Games.

The BMX world number one almost quit the sport she loved so much (Nine)

“It was just one of the worst days of my life,” Saya recalls.

“The way that his head hit the ground, I knew that this was going to be really bad. And I was just wishing that this was not real.”

Then, disaster almost struck again.

In the semi-final of the Tokyo Olympics, Saya suffered her own crash.

Saya has always practised and competed next to her brother Kai, and a horrific accident in the lead up to the Tokyo Olympics ended all that. (Nine)

It resulted in her early exit, as Saya was driven from the track in the back of an ambulance.

Saya’s had a grand total of six concussions – and with her own welfare at heart, following her disappointment at Tokyo, briefly decided BMX was no longer for her.

“I was feeling the lowest of the lowest that I’ve ever felt,” she said.

“That’s when I was like, ‘I don’t want to do this again’. I knew that if I didn’t quit, there is a chance that it would happen again, and I’ll be back here again. I didn’t like the thought of that.

“I told Kai, I told my parents, I told my biggest sponsor, Red Bull, to the point of like, ‘Yeah, this is not going to be for me’.”

The Sakikibara siblings’ parents, Martin and Yuki, watch Saya race from the sidelines, with equal parts joy and fear.

Saya crashed out of the women’s BMX semi-finals in Tokyo, leaving her with six concussions. (Nine)

At times, Yuki wonders whether quitting would have been best.

“Because I don’t want to see any of my children get hurt, same as any other parents,” Yuki said.

But the Sakakibara family know they have unfinished business together.

“She came up to me and said, ‘I think I’m quitting BMX’. And I can’t believe she would say such a thing, because all I’ve ever done and all that she’s ever done was BMX and that’s it,” Kai said.

“And for her to say that she’s giving it up was quite heartbreaking for me. But at the same time, it’s no wonder why she was scared.”

Being in their presence, it’s impossible to not be impressed by the Sakakibaras’ determination to succeed.

Kai can’t race bikes anymore, but he’s working hard to achieve his new dream of competing in rowing at the Paralympics in 2028.

Overcoming all mental and physical obstacles, Saya now has her eyes on the gold medal at the Paris Olympics later this year. (Nine)

Martin and Yuki are still cheering Saya on from the stands. And Saya knows she’s where she belongs.

“If I give up, then I’m giving up on myself, and I would feel so ashamed that I didn’t show up for myself,” she said.

“That’s what keeps me going.”

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