After just missing the Olympic podium as a 19-year-old, Sarah Walker feels a lot older and wiser as she eyes London. Mark Geenty reports.
Sarah Walker knows only too well the weight of expectation of a medal-starved New Zealand public.
Ranked No1 in the world four years ago, the girl from Kawerau donned her helmet in the Beijing heat and tried to block it out. New Zealand media swarmed, sensing a rare medal. The brash American trackside announcer screamed into the microphone and the music blared, making it all the more unbearable.
Walker competed ably, but fourth in the final was her lot in BMX's first appearance at the Olympics. As the dust settled and she completed interview after interview, pale and wide-eyed, she already cast her mind forward four years.
"I was 19 at Beijing so I was always going to be a bit older and wiser this time around," she said this week, after defying a dislocated shoulder to make the New Zealand team.
"It's not like any other competition, being able to stand up to the pressure of the day and bringing to the table everything I've learned over the last four years, and all the training I'm doing."
That training is largely done alone in Cambridge, aside from the occasional track joust with fellow Olympian Kurt Pickard, who with California-based Marc Willers makes up the BMX team of three for London. Since Walker jumped on a BMX by chance in 1999 when watching her brother Matt race (she won a national age-grade title two months later), she's used to going solo on the training track.
At 23, she knows she's among the world's best. BMX is a mad scramble to the first corner and if you're leading then, it's a fair chance you'll be in the finish. It's the battle in Walker's mind that needs the most work heading into the big events. She acknowledges that, and feels ready after intense sessions with prominent sports psychologist David Galbraith.
"It's just being confident and believing in yourself and being courageous.
"The most important part is the mental side. When you get to the Olympics everyone is fairly even and the difference will be who can perform at their best on the day. It might not be the strongest and fastest."
Even being picked for London is a mini triumph.
Seven weeks ago Walker lay in agony on a track in Norway after another rider cut her off and she had nowhere to go but into the dirt. Her shoulder was dislocated, her London dream seemingly gone.
"I guess I thought that would be it, the Olympics over. It was only three months out from the Olympics and my shoulder was pointing in the wrong direction. That's not ideal."
It was only her third major crash in 13 years of BMX racing, and the timing was awful. But her healing powers came through, and only days after being back on the bike she lined up in Birmingham last month and did enough to qualify for London, finishing fifth in a semifinal.
Not only did it achieve her goal in the nick of time, it sent a timely message to her rivals.
"I think I surprised everyone I was racing against, how quickly I'd come back. It was good that my competition had probably written me off and I came back and let them know I'm still here, and ready to do the business."
The BMX finals are on the last day of competition in London on August 10. The track is roomy and there's a longer ride to the first turn, and Walker prefers it to Beijing.
BikeNZ has openly targeted four medals across all cycling disciplines in London. Walker and Willers, due to their high rankings, are obvious contenders and she has no issue with that.
"I would set that target for myself anyway. Given the performance at the worlds after one week of riding, I'm definitely capable of winning a gold medal."
AT A GLANCE
Name: Sarah Walker
Born: July 10, 1988, in Whakatane
Home town: Kawerau
First year of BMX racing: 1999
National elite titles: 5 (2007-2011)
Career highlights: World champion 2009 (Adelaide); world championships runner-up in 2010 (Pietermaritzburg) and 2011 (Copenhagen); Olympics fourth in 2008 (Beijing)
- © Fairfax NZ News
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