Saya Sakakibara was on the final turn, leading the pack with the finish line and an Olympic final in sight. The Australian BMX racer said she was racing for both herself and her brother Kai, who would have been in Tokyo too but for a serious crash last year which left him with permanent brain damage.
But this bend at Ariake Urban Sports Park was particularly steep, and even the most innocuous contact could end it all in an instant. So, when the bike of America’s Alise Willoughby appeared to touch Sakakibara’s back wheel during the third run of the women’s semi-final, the 21-year-old went down.
The world watched and waited as medics rushed over and stretchered her off the course. Kai, whose own accident resulted in a two-month coma, eight-month hospital stay and rehabilitation to relearn how to walk and talk, saw the whole thing on TV remotely.
After 30 minutes of mild concussion symptoms, Sakakibara was medically cleared. Apart from bumps and bruises, she was physically OK. Mentally she was a mess, in tears and feeling as if she had “let down” her brother.
“Definitely confused, I honestly I don’t really know what happened,” she told the Seven Network. “But I know that I was riding really well. My starts were going really well. I came down with Alise, who caught up with me, we came down together. That’s all I remember. This is so disappointing. I feel like I have let everyone down. I let everyone down, especially my brother.”
Kai, who also spoke to Seven post-race, said he was proud of his sister. “Saya, I know this isn’t what you wanted,” he said. “But either way I’m really proud, and let’s go prepare for the next one.”
Willoughby was also visibly shaken. Her Australian husband, Sam, a London 2012 silver medallist, was paralysed from the chest down in a training accident in 2016. He now coaches his wife.
Sakakibara referenced the perilous, unpredictable nature of BMX, in which riders can make up to six metres of air and collisions and concussions are common.
“BMX, this is what it is … to be honest I can’t believe it’s over,” Sakakibara said. “It didn’t really hit me until I watched that women’s race. It just really sucks for sure.
“I feel like I probably did the best that I could today. Coming off yesterday I was able to switch back on, make sure I put down a really good result for that second moto. To be honest, I don’t think it’s really clicked that it’s over, but yeah, it just sucks.”