© Suguru Saito/Red Bull Content Pool

Twenty-year-old BMX star Saya Sakakibara is no stranger to hard work. The half-British, half-Japanese athlete, who grew-up between Japan and Australia, has been competing since she was four, after joining her successful older brother, Kai, on the BMX circuit. A six-time Australian national champion, Saya was sixth in the world in her rookie year and is currently ranked 7th in the world.

In this Q&A we chat about Saya’s Olympic dream being put back a year, the strength training she does for that all-important explosive power on the bike, plus the Red Bull athlete shares an update on the condition of her brother, Kai, who suffered a serious brain injury whilst racing earlier this year.

© Jarno Schurgers/Red Bull Content Pool

You grew-up following your brother, Kai, to BMX races. Were you desperate to get involved too or did your family encourage you?
I wouldn’t say I was desperate, because I was more interested in playing in the dirt next to the BMX track rather than ride my bike. It was my parents who encouraged me into starting BMX, mainly because my brother was already riding and it was probably easier for my parents if both their children did the same sport! I don’t remember my first race, but I was told that I crashed three times on the same jump, cried and went home. My bike was left untouched for months! But somewhere along the way, I gave BMX a second try. And I’ve been doing BMX with my brother ever since!

You spent your early years in Japan. What was the BMX scene like there growing up?
If you compare the BMX community in Japan of 200 members to 15,000+ members in Australia, it’s quite apparent that BMX is very small in Japan, especially considering the population. I’m guessing that there were fewer riders in Japan when I was living there. So there was a lot of hours spent in the car travelling to different races and to tracks on the weekend, as there weren’t many tracks available just to ride. Dad would take Kai and me to jump parks or trails just to get some bike time.

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You raced throughout school. Did this mean juggling training and sacrificing social events?
I think [the] priority of school and training really varied on what grade I was in and even the time of year. My parents and I made a deal that if I did my best in school, they would continue to support my BMX, and that was it for me! Kai was always the motivated and driven one and I was the one following along with everything that he did, whether it was track sessions, sprint sessions or gym sessions. I’d like to say I wasn’t bad at managing my time, but it did mean that I missed out on the odd birthday parties here and there. I was sad to miss out, but I’d always choose BMX over social events.

For readers who don’t know, please could you explain what BMX involves?
BMX Racing is eight riders on a start hill, and it’s a race through a course to the finish line. The track usually consists of three 180-degree turns and four straights consisting of jumps made of dirt of all sizes and shapes. It’s a test of reaction time, speed, skill and tactical play to win. BMX racing is 1 lap of a track [that’s] usually between 300-400 metres and the race is all over in 30-40 seconds!

Now, BMX supercross, in particular, is the elite level in BMX racing. This is the stuff you see on TV and the Olympics, with jumps, crashes and the whole spectacle! The main differences are that supercross tracks have an 8-metre start hill, they are Olympic standard tracks, and these are where the World Cups are held.

© Suguru Saito/Red Bull Content Pool)

You should have realised your Olympic dream this year. What emotions did you feel when the IOC announced the Games would be postponed?
It took me a while to get into a good rhythm of things, knowing that the big goal I was striving for went from 100 days away to 400 days away. There were days or weeks where I didn’t do much, I couldn’t see any point of training that day. But to be honest, having an extra 12 months could only be an advantage for me. I’m still relatively young in the women’s field and I see myself having so much more to gain in terms of strength, speed and skill. I’m seeing it as a positive, as I can only be faster next year than I was this year. The goal hasn’t changed, just shifted.

Have you been able to stick to your usual training and riding during the pandemic?
Basically the same! There has been less riding as the tracks weren’t open so I was spending more time in the gym.

What kind of strength sessions are important to you as a BMX athlete?
BMX requires full-body strength. But the start is the most important part of a BMX race, so leg power is important to get the bike going fast from a stop-start position. Leg exercises such as squats and deadlifts are considered as main exercises, but I do find core, upper body and plyometric exercises also very important in my overall strength.

© Jarno Schurgers/Red Bull Content Pool

What does a typical week of training look like for you?
My training week now looks like this:

Monday
Morning: Gym – typically two hours working on the whole body

Afternoon: Bike sprints – this varies between uphill, flat road, downhill, heavy or light gearing, depending on the phase of training. At the moment, I do flat road sprints with a heavy gearing as I’m working on strength

Tuesday – Rest

Wednesday
Morning: Gym – typically two hours working on the whole body

Afternoon: Gate practice – working on start technique and repetition at the BMX track

Thursday – Rest

Friday
Morning: Gym – typically two hours working on the whole body

Afternoon: Strength endurance on the Wattbike – high-intensity sprints with short rests

Saturday
Morning: Track session – working on skills: jumping, manualing etc.

Afternoon: 15-20-minute home high-intensity workout circuit.

Sunday – Rest

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You mentioned you use a Wattbike. Can you share a standard session?
I use the Wattbike differently at different times in training phases, but here is one I would do on a Friday: 20-minute warm-up followed by 2 sets of 4 x (8 second sprint/1 minute 52-second recovery). Then a 20-minute cool-down.

How important is the mental side of your performance?
Mental strength is very important in BMX. The race is only 30 to 40 seconds, and the slightest error can cost a race. In this day and age, the competition is so tight and most of the time, the winner is the one who’s able to make the least mistakes when it counts. I’ve worked on race day strategies to deal with anxiety and channelling them into practical practices that work for me. I found this super-helpful and just as important as my training.

How have you felt without a race schedule due to the pandemic?
It’s been nice having a break but it’s definitely hard when you don’t have those short-term goals like the World Cups to strive for. I really miss the nerves and the feeling I get just before I get on the gate to race! Motivation levels go up and down week to week, but when that happens, it’s usually when I’m tired and I just need to adjust my training for the week.

Your brother, Kai, was involved in a serious crash five months ago. Can you share what happened?
In early February of this year, Kai had a serious accident at a World Cup in Bathurst, Australia. Kai obtained a Traumatic Brain Injury, which left him in a medically induced coma for four very long weeks. Even after he had ‘woken up’, it has been a long process to start moving his limbs, to drink and eat, and to start in regaining basic human skills.

© Ryan Fudger/Red Bull Content Pool

How is Kai doing now?
Fast-forward to the present and it’s coming close to 5 months after his crash. Kai is doing well in a rehabilitation unit in Liverpool Australia. Five days a week he undergoes intense rehabilitation such as physiotherapy, speech and occupational therapy with the goal of getting Kai back to an independent life. Kai’s injury has majorly affected the right side of his body, which has caused Kai to have sensation but very little movement in his right leg and arm. It has also affected his speech, as he finds it difficult to find the correct words to say or form a clear sentence.

Despite all of his injuries, Kai has continued to fight from day one. He gives 100% in everything he does, and then asks for more things to do! He is very determined like he has always been, and in good spirits, making jokes and having a laugh here and there.

Through this whole experience, it has been inspiring for me to watch just how much and how fast he has made gains. Five months is still ‘early days’ in the long scheme of things and we are hoping he will continue to improve at this rate. There is still a long road ahead but we are so lucky to have had the support of the BMX community and other supporters along the way, generously donating to Kai’s fundraisers. I believe these people’s words of encouragement and positivity have largely contributed to the reason why he has gotten this far in his recovery. Here is a link to more information about his journey and for those that want to support the lengthy rehabilitation process:

https://road2recovery.com/cause-view/kai-sakakibara/.

What are your favourite items of kit for racing and training?
Bike set-up:

Frame: DK Zenith

Brakes: Shimano

Wheels: Onyx hubs, SD Components rims, Tioga tires

Drivetrain: Shimano cranks and chain, Michram chainring, HT pedals

Handlebars: BOX

Race gear:

Helmet: Shoei VFX – WR Red Bull painted

Goggles: Oakley Airbrake

Gloves: Fist Handwear

Shoes: Shimano Sphyre

And a Red Bull for training and race day fuel.

Who are you sponsored by right now?
BMX equipment can be expensive so I’m very fortunate to be supported by everyone mentioned above, plus our local supporters Peabody Energy and Parkside Sports Physiotherapy.

You can follow Saya via her social channels: www.instagram.com/sayasakakibara and www.facebook.com/sayasakakibarabmx. You can also visit www.sakakibarabmx.com.

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