Rewards await New Zealand's Sarah Walker

COME OF AGE: Sarah Walker celebrates her silver medal.
COME OF AGE: Sarah Walker celebrates her silver medal.

Sarah Walker barely had time to celebrate her silver medal success as she conducted interview after interview outside the Olympic athletes' village, all with the polish of a seasoned campaigner.

Now she's about to realise what being an Olympic medallist can do for your profile when she heads home.

The 24-year-old from Kawerau was best known for being a one-time world champion, and for her agonising fourth in Beijing four years ago.

Her profile was still high; she followed Olympic gold medallists Sarah Ulmer and the Evers-Swindell twins into being a poster girl for Beef and Lamb New Zealand. She drives a sponsored car, has loyal backing from bike manufacturers, apparel and shoe sponsors who have stuck with her from day one. Her Olympic preparation was paid for from the $18 million pot of BikeNZ's funding from High Performance Sport NZ.

As an Olympic medallist she will get an instant $55,000 performance enhancement grant from High Performance Sport NZ.

She won't become rich but her face will be seen a lot as advertising and sponsorship opportunities come her way. “To prove you can compete at the highest level just gives you another level of credibility,” her manager, Charlotte Hill, said.

“There definitely will be a lot of interest; just not on the scale of US or UK athletes.”

While some gold medallists in past years have not sought a profile, Walker is comfortable in the limelight.

She spoke with brutal honesty about battling self-confidence issues with her racing, and the key role played by her sports psychologist, David Galbraith. She's up-front, photogenic and speaks well, and has proved she has built some mental toughness.

“She's a really confident public speaker and she holds it really well, Hill said. "This will boost her profile; she's already a wonderful ambassador for her sport.” Hill and her business partner with Fuse Group, Roger Mortimer, also have rowing gold medallist Mahe Drysdale on their books so they've had a good Games.

Much like Drysdale, Hill said, Walker would not let this go to her head as she returned to Cambridge, where she trains.

“She knows it's important to keep her feet on the ground.”

Walker's podium finish - it felt like a gold medal to her given the mental torment she'd been through - will help set up the sport in New Zealand, too.

Auckland hosts the world BMX championships next July and what better poster girl to have for a sport still trying to grab mainstream interest.

“It's a special moment for me and a special moment for BMX in New Zealand," Walker said.

"With the world champs next year in Auckland this will be a huge boost for that coming to our country for the first time."

BikeNZ BMX coach Ken Cools, a Canadian with tattooed arms and diamond ear studs, wore a mile-wide grin thinking about what Walker's medal would do for the sport. He is already committed to guide Walker and New Zealand team-mates Marc Willers and Kurt Pickard for the next four years.

“Sarah is such a great spokesperson for our sport, she's got a huge smile, she's a pretty girl, and a great sportswoman.

"Now she's proved she's one of the best athletes so she's the full package. Hopefully, that translates into more kids riding their bikes in New Zealand,” Cools said.