Sarah Walker conquered her inner demons and climbed the Olympic podium today as New Zealand's BMX pin-up girl became Silver Sarah.
Walker, the 24-year-old from Kawerau, recovered from a sluggish first heat of the semifinals to finish second in the medal race at a sweltering, crash-strewn Olympic Park, a bike length behind Colombian gold medallist Mariana Pajon.
Walker's friend and training partner, Dutchwoman Laura Smulders, won bronze while three of the competition heavyweights, Australian Caroline Buchanan, Great Britain's Shanaze Read and France's Magalie Pottier all missed the medals.
A tearful Walker, who was cheered on by her parents, Graham and Sue, and brother, Matt, among the 6000 in the grandstands, said fear drove her onto the dais.
She crashed three months ago in Norway and dislocated her shoulder, which left her thinking her Olympic dream was over.
"I'm happy. They're tears of emotion and a little bit of disbelief as well. It's been a lot of hard work to get to this point," she said.
The crash in April meant Walker had to walk a tightrope to get to London, knowing any slip-up would end her Games bid.
"If I didn't push myself and push that limit and challenge myself I wouldn't be on the podium today. Every day was scary for me, training, for the last three months. Once I got here was the easy part because I was here.
"I was scared every time I rode my bike up until about two weeks ago. Sometimes I'd do jumps and have a close call and I'd just cry. I was living right on the edge of either being a medallist or not even being at the Olympics. If I wanted to play it safe I could have been an Olympian again but I wouldn't have been on the podium. I had to risk my body and the Olympics every day I was on my bike."
The breakthrough came a fortnight ago when riding a track in The Netherlands with Smulders. It's the closest likeness to the "scary" London track and Walker's confidence soared after she zipped around it unscathed.
Walker spoke openly of her mental battle to get here, after finishing fourth in Beijing four years ago.
"Going into Beijing I did doubt myself a lot and I didn't really believe I could win or believe I deserved to be on that podium. I've worked a lot over the last two years to build up the confidence and myself and the belief in myself that I can do this and that I can push myself and to not be afraid of losing."
Central to that was "amazing" Hamilton sports psychologist David Galbraith who she saw almost every week for the past two years. Galbraith also works with the title-winning Chiefs rugby and Magic netball teams.
But Walker still turned up today with some doubts, and onlookers shared them after she was slow out and finished a disappointing fifth in the first of three semifinal heats.
"I took in the moment and got a bit scared and a little bit blown away by the whole thing. Doing a pretty bad first race actually got me re-focused and ready for the next one. Every time I kept improving, I got an amazing start in that final and I'm really proud of today. I thought going into this race that I could win it but I woke up and I had a lot of doubts in my mind. I fought through those and ended up getting on that gate really focused and not afraid of crashing either."
Walker finished fourth and third in her next two semifinal runs to qualify fourth from her group, which gave her gate six for the eight-woman final.
She flew out and was second to the first turn, behind Pajon, the 2011 world champion. She had a quick first corner then was never in danger of being passed. She briefly looked like challenging the flying Pajon on the second-last straight before finishing 0.42 behind.
Beaming on the dais, Walker was also buoyed by support from rowing gold medallists Mahe Drysdale, Eric Murray and Hamish Bond.
"I saw them as I was going up for my second race and I thought 'man that's cool', there's some gold medal Kiwis here to support me. I'd better do them good."
But while Walker flashed her million dollar smile, team-mate Marc Willers was inconsolable after crashing out.
One of the medal favourites after two wins and a second in his heats, Willers was second in his first semifinal run before crashing heavily just before the final turn. He backed up in the next run but was clearly not right, finishing last.
"It's just gutting. I obviously wanted it to go differently but I just didn't have the legs down that third straight. I tried to manual the middle section instead of jumping and it was a costly mistake," he said.
"I smashed my legs on something and my quads were just blown. When I tried to start that last race there was just nothing in there."
Latvia's Maris Strombergs retained his men's Olympic title, ahead of Australian Sam Willoughby.
- © Fairfax NZ News