• Saya Sakakibara in April 2017 (OneGreeBean/Red Bull)Source: OneGreeBean/Red Bull
With her school days now behind her, Saya Sakakibara is ready - and hungry - for her step up to the elite BMX scene.
Rachel de Bear

Cycling Central
24 Nov 2017 - 8:36 AM  UPDATED 24 Nov 2017 - 9:46 AM

The 18-year-old has already packed a lot in while juggling the demands of school.

World champion five times; winning a silver medal this year while contending for the junior world champion title in July; launching her own Sakakibara racing team with her older brother Kai; and becoming a Red Bull ambassador earlier this year. Plenty for anyone's lifetime. 

But it is the unfettered step-up to the big leagues she has craved.  

"This whole year has just been kind of like focusing on school over BMX. I cancelled a few trips overseas because of exams and stuff like that so a big weight off my shoulders having graduated school and not having that like always pulling me down for training and trips and stuff like that.

"A lot to juggle especially year 12, and competing at a higher level as well, definitely a big relief."

The wisdom of youth

With so many recent examples of athletes sharing their struggles with retirement, it's easy to worry about the holistic development of those just embarking on a career in sport. But any worry for Sakakibara is abated once you hear her speak about, well pretty much anything, even if it is smattered with the lingo of the young.  

Plus, it's hard to fault her reasoning for no further plans to study at this stage. 

"I can study when I'm older, but I can't ride my bike."

And you also envy her positive perspective, her practically instant chill about her injury earlier this year. It happened in a crash on the second day of racing at the USA BMX Mile High Nationals. On the previous day, her consistent racing in the motos saw Sakakibara finish second overall to newly crowned world champion Alise Post. 

"It was actually my first time I’d done something to my bones. It wasn’t a big break but it was just a little chip we didn’t really see at first.

"But it came at a really good time actually. After worlds, that was the biggest goal for the year and it was heads down studying for the HSC so it worked out to be pretty good being off the bike for that little bit. 

"It was one of those things that happen. It wasn’t really my fault I actually crashed and hurt my wrist. It was just good to have a little break and when I got back on the bike it was really awesome and I missed it."

It's hard to believe she just walked out of school. Sakakibara already has a heightened sense awareness of her limitations and strengths.

For instance, she has the wherewithal to ask for a day off if she's just not feeling it.

"I definitely do have those days when I’m really unmotivated and just want to sit in bed and I think that’s when your body is telling you to ramp it down a little bit.

"I think I had that a little bit leading up to the national championships this year, there was lots of racing, lots of training in a short amount of time and I was like nup, so I called my coach and it was like, yep, let’s ramp it down a bit.

"So I had a day’s rest. That was all I needed really. Just to get back on it."

The Illawarra rider is also able to offer excellent insight into the lessons already learned from only a small amount of racing on the big stage.

"My biggest lesson was the competition. In Australia I’ve struggled to get close competition at each race I’m always winning and not so much competition.

"When I went overseas it was revved up so high and it was just like an eye opener. Wow, I really have to step it up I can’t just cruise around winning everything in Australia I have to really think about my competition outside Australia.

"I really have to keep that in mind. It’s really easy to be caught up in the ‘easy bubble’ I guess in Australia."

Of course it's not all about the holistic stoke, winning does definitely drive Sakakibara. Just ask her what she thinks success will look like in 2018.

"Coming up to the elite class will be a big step up but I don’t go into any event aiming for second or third. I’m always aiming for the number one spot. 

"So even if it’s my rookie year in elite I’m always aiming for that win. I’ll always be racing for the number one spot.

"If I was able to win some world cup circuits that would be a really successful year."

Tokyo 2020 - full circle

Sakakibara says she can't really remember a time she didn't race BMX, although she can remember playing in the dirt beside the track while her brother Kai raced. 

Nor can she really remember the difficulty of learning to speak English again after returning to Australia as an eight-year-old after a six year stint in Japan. 

"When I was living in Japan our first language was Japanese. My dad’s English, (and my mum's Japanese), and he was trying to teach me English and I was refusing to and when I came to Australia, I had nothing.

"I had to start from scratch. I remember not understanding what people were saying, but other than that, I remember a friend I made on the first day and she was telling me all this stuff and I’m like what the hell are you saying. It was odd. Yeah I don’t really remember, eventually it became normal."

It was in Japan where Sakakibara first started racing BMX at just four years of age. And it is also in Japan where her ultimate goal lies. 

"My first ride and my first bike and my first race were all in Japan and my major goal for my career is represent Australia in the Olympic Games. 

"So I think starting from Japan and coming over here and doing all the training and taking the step up to then go back and race my ultimate goal in Japan would be really cool." 

When she was younger, Sakakibara used to copy her brother with everything and followed him into BMX racing. While she doesn't do it so much anymore, there's still a lot they share. 

"Hah. I’m not sure you’d still call it copying. Now we’re in the Sakkikbara team together under the same brand and the same team, racing together, training together, working for the same goal it’s all pretty much the same anyway."

"So we’ll start off in first national round in February and then the national champs and then we’ll be off to do the world cups up until the world championships and then come home do some more local races and just finish off the world cup towards the end of the year."

Watch The Feed's piece on the Sakakibaras from August 2017

It's not just the world of elite BMX racing now open to Sakakibara, but also that opened to her by her Red Bull ambassadorship. 

"Meeting the athletes from all disciplines, they're all so amazing to work with and have a chat it’s a really cool environment to be in a big family.

"It's opened up so many opportunities like media, as well as cool media training lots of opportunities outside training, it's been sick."

I think the kid will be alright.