Saya Sakakibara sits at the top of the Te Awamutu BMX course and her heart is racing.
Her first race since September beckons and she knows her chances of winning the Oceania Championships will swing wildly based on the next 2.5 seconds.
Get to the opening corner first, and Sakakibara likely wins. Fail to do so and she’s up for 30 seconds of rough and tumble BMX racing in which she’s forced to fight her way past her rivals.
“Lining up on the start line in between two fast New Zealand girls Rebecca Petch and Sarah Walker, they have really good first straights, so I knew if I stuffed up, I’d be shut down and run out of track quickly,” Sakakibara explains.
“Getting to that first corner first is really important. It gives you a huge advantage and increases your chances of winning. You can set the pace, can take whatever line you want and all you have to do is focus on producing your best lap, you don’t have to worry about how to pass anyone.
“In the final I had a really good start. I saw my front wheel was a bit in front of everyone else, I could still see the New Zealand girls in the corner of my eye and knew I was in front. Even that little bit ahead, meant I could control the race.”
Now that Sakakibara’s hit the front and finds some clear air, the Helensburgh product can find her rhythm. She can focus purely on herself and the course in front of her.
As an emerging superstar of the sport, it’s a position the 19-year-old finds herself in on a regular basis. And on this occasion, she knew exactly what to do to hold off a high-quality pack of chasing rivals.
“Once we turn around the first corner, the pack spreads out a little as the racers find their place. I was in front, so didn’t have to start thinking about the rest of the field or how to pass anyone.
“I was like the rabbit, running away from the rest of the pack as fast as I could. I was just trying to do my best lap, focusing on not coming up short or over-jumping on the jumps.”
Having safely negotiated the first two turns, Sakakibara has one last corner to go. For countless athletes, this is where all the hard work comes undone. A brief lapse in concentration all that’s required to trigger a crash and a plummet down the finishing order.
“Heading into the last corner, I was like ‘yep, I’ve pretty much got this.’ But it is really dangerous to think that way, a lot of passing can be made down the last straight.
“So I had that thought for a split second, then I was like ‘no, I’m riding all the way to the finish line, no stopping.’ I was on full gas all the way to the end.”
Now, just 34 seconds later, the nerves make way for relief and elation as Sakakibara completes a near flawless run on the way to a wire-to-wire victory. A victory made even better with brother Kai taking out the men’s final.
“It was a big feeling of relief crossing the finish line first. I struggled a bit in practice and the heats, so I thought maybe it wasn’t my day. After the first straight I was really happy with my lap, it was my fastest lap of the day, which was awesome. I was relieved, then really happy with the result.”