BMX rider has Olympic dream dashed, but eyes return to the track

Twenty-four-year-old BMX rider Kai Sakakibara was pedaling hard toward a spot on the Australia team for the Tokyo Olympics until a crash last February almost cost him his life.

Kai and his sister Saya, three years his junior, have taken part in international competitions since they were children. Each won titles at the Oceania BMX Championships in 2017. Both were ranked among the world’s top 10 in January last year and expectations were high that the siblings would win tickets to the Tokyo Games.

BMX bikers compete for speed on an undulating track about 400 meters long. Riders often collide and fall from their bikes, earning BMX racing its reputation as a combat sport for bikers. It was added to the Olympic program for the Beijing Games in 2008.

Last January, Kai was optimistic about making it to the Tokyo Games. “I’m confident I’ll qualify,” he said. “If I can do my best in every race.”

Kai in a BMX race
BMX racing is known as a combat sport for bikers.

Kai was born in Australia to a British father and a Japanese mother. He moved to Tokyo with his family when he was four and spent six years there. He started BMX racing in earnest in Japan, but decided to represent Australia when he was 17. Those early years in Japan and his Japanese heritage made him eager to take part in the Tokyo Games.

“Tokyo is my second home. I have relatives and friends there who have been rooting for me since I was in elementary school,” he said, back in early 2020. “I want to put on a great performance at the world’s biggest sporting event in front of those people.”

But that dream was crushed in February last year when Kai fell and hit his head at a World Cup event in Australia. He underwent operations that saved his life, but damage to the left side of his brain is impacting his ability to move the right side of his body or speak freely.

Saya helped with his rehab as she continued to train for the Olympics, and says his accident only strengthened her resolve to compete.

“It was Kai and I's shared goal of competing at the Games together as brother and sister,” she said. “After years of hard work, now I feel the responsibility to do whatever I can to make it to the Olympics. Not only for myself but for both of us.”

Kai often asks her what kind of training she is doing or if her times have improved. He also watches her practice videos and gives advice. When he comes home temporarily on weekends, he even helps with her training.

Saya Sakakibara started BMX when she was four and living in Tokyo. She says her older brother Kai was a big influence on her.

After months in a wheelchair, Kai can now walk slowly without assistance. He left the rehabilitation facility in late November and is looking to a future in which he’ll be back on his bike and competing again. He also posted a video of himself making a speech as part of his rehab. In it, he sends this message:

“I’ve experienced what it’s like to almost die but still make it through, and I think I’ve learned a lot from this. I’ve learned that even if it sucks, as long as you persist, you can get there. The minute you give up, the minute you call it a day, it’s all over. So, don’t give up.”

Kai has been working hard on rehabilitation. Saya says watching her brother strengthens her determination to get to the Olympics.
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