BMX'ers have right mindset for medal glory
Sarah Walker exudes a calm, almost robotic confidence. Listening to her speak, you could be convinced this is her time, at her second Olympics.
She's waited four years to shake the awful memories of Beijing when she went in with huge expectation as a 20-year-old and was overawed and emotional, finishing an unfulfilling fourth in the women's BMX final.
Now the expectation comes from the heavily-funded BikeNZ who need her and Marc Willers to make the podium as the national body chases its stated target of four medals. Walker is rated third-favourite by English bookmakers; Willers fifth-favourite for the men.
“I'm stronger than I've ever been and faster than I've ever been. I'm confident and I actually believe in myself this time ,” Walker said.
A world champion in 2009, then runner-up the following two years, Walker has fought physical and psychological battles to get to the London BMX venue, perched beside the velodrome at Olympic Park.
In April, Walker lay on a Norway track in agony, her shoulder dislocated and her redemption Games in jeopardy. Remarkably, a few weeks later she lined up at the world championships in Birmingham and did enough to finish fifth in a semifinal and confirm her spot in London.
“I feel pretty much 100 per cent now and I was expecting to only get to about 90. I'm really confident in my riding ability and I feel really strong. I'm back to doing push-ups which I didn't think I'd be able to do before racing.”
All BMX riders will admit the mind plays as big a part as the body when the gate comes down at the 450-metre track. Walker has turned to leading sports psychologist David Galbraith. The simple act of nodding off in her first night in the athletes' apartments this week was an early victory.
“I went to sleep last night knowing that practice is today and we're finally here, and I didn't even think, I went straight to sleep."
Walker and team-mates Willers and Kurt Pickard checked into the village on Monday and reacquainted themselves with the track on which they raced in the test event last year.
Willers won that event, and says the longer ride to the first corner makes it less of a lottery. The US-based rider learned from his Beijing experience, too.
“Last time I didn't really have any idea of what I was going into." After two days of exhaustive qualifying, the finals are raced early on Saturday.
Age: 24 Lives: Cambridge Gold medal odds (William Hill): 9-2 Major opponents: Shanaze Read (Great Britain) 5-2, Magalie Pottier (France) 4-1 Major results: Olympics: 2008, 4th; World championships: 2009, 1st; 2010: 2nd; 2011: 2nd MARC WILLERS Age: 26 Lives: Murrieta, California Gold medal odds (William Hill): 10-1 Major opponents: Maris Strombergs (Latvia) 5-2, Joris Daudet (France) 7-2, Sam Willoughby (Australia) 4-1 Major results: Olympics: 2008, 15th; World championships: 2009: 30th; 2010: 6th; 2011: 3rd