As Sarah Walker circumnavigates the Olympic BMX arena at the end of a momentous day of finals action, the 24-year-old pride of Kawerau stops for a succession of pictures with admirers and well-wishers. This is when it finally hits home. After 14 long years of trekking, she's finally at the mountaintop.
And, boy, is the view great from up there.
Walker has just won the Olympic silver medal with a gutsy, precision ride in the final of the women's competition on a red-letter day for the sport. Nay-sayers have raised furrowed brows over BMX's inclusion on the Olympic programme, but it's fair to say those doubters are not among the throngs trying to get in for one of the hot tickets of the Games.
BMX is the future of the Olympics, and the future is now. Rock music blares, packed stands baking in the sun feature David Beckham and David Cameron, as well as some gold medal-winning Kiwi rowers, stunt riders fill in the down-time and James McAvoy and Simon Pegg shush us on the big screens when riders are at the gate.
It's wild and it's entertaining. It's hip and it's fun. And the glamour girl from New Zealand fits right in. When she removes the helmet and the long locks cascade out, you can see why Walker is considered BMX royalty now. When she flashes that killer smile and bats those pretty eyes, males everywhere go weak at the knees.
And now she has that silver medal round her neck, there's a sense of self-assurance about this talented young woman that only adds to the package. It took a lot for a kid from such a small town to "dream big", she says, but even more to conquer the demons from a bad crash and dislocated shoulder three months ago.
She has left behind the bad memories of Beijing, where she finished fourth after going in as the No 1 ranked rider in the world, and found a joy and contentment that only Olympic success can bring. She is, it is fair to say, in her happy place.
Later she will reflect on the journey she's made from the 10-year-old who took up the sport because she got sick of watching her younger brother Matt have all the fun. From the start she determined to "ride like a boy" and she's been ripping up the madcap world of BMX racing ever since.
"My brother got a BMX bike for Christmas," she recalls. "The closest track was an hour and a quarter drive each way. I watched my brother for a couple of months, but got sick and tired of having to travel that much to watch him. So I had a go, and figured whatever he could do, I could do. If he could do jumps, I could too.
"We pushed each other for years. I wouldn't be where I am without that because at that time girls in New Zealand didn't jump. But I rode like a boy. It was unheard of and I encourage girls in New Zealand to start young and learn to jump as soon as possible."
Walker's mother, Sue, a primary school teacher in Kawerau, remembers taking her daughter along to early national competitions. "Her first nationals people were saying 'who is that?' because she just rode so beautifully. She was doing things none of the other girls were doing at that stage."
Walker is a role model, not just for girls, for small-town kids, and for BMX riders in general, but for sports people everywhere. After her shoulder injury she spent most of the last three months fighting the fear of crashing out again.
"I was scared every time I rode up till about two weeks ago," she revealed. "Sometimes I'd do jumps and have a close call and just cry. I was living right on the edge of being a medallist and not being at the Olympics at all."
But Walker conquered those fears that haunted her as recently as the morning of the finals. "I woke up and I was like this is it, this is the big day. I had a bit of a moment when I broke down and cried, just because I realised that today I could fail. But then I realised that today I could also succeed."
That's when those clouds lifted and revealed a silver lining. The Kawerau kid had come of age.
- © Fairfax NZ News