Kiwi BMX Olympic hopeful Sarah Walker still harbours the fears and doubts that pervade her high-risk sport, but as she embarks on a last-ditch Olympic tilt says she’s just learned to be more “courageous” in the face of them.
Walker is on the comeback trail after several months out dealing with a double fracture in her arm suffered in training in Cambridge back in February. It was the latest blow in a career brimming with injury setbacks, but has not deterred the London Olympic silver medallist from making a late bid to qualify for Rio which she’s confident of ticking off.
The 27-year-old left New Zealand last Saturday night headed for a world cup event in Holland this weekend, and then (after a training block in Florida) the world championships in Colombia at the end of May, where she will need to secure a high placing to nail a spot in the Games field. They will be her first major competitions since her triumph in the Oceania championships at the end of January.
Walker isn’t quite sure what the equation is (It’s complicated,” she shrugs), but is confident she can secure a Rio spot if she rides somewhere near her best in Colombia. It may help her to compete in Holland this weekend, but she probably won’t decide until after practice day whether she even lines up in the main competition.
“If I race the World Cup in Holland it makes qualifying at the world champs a little bit easier,” she said. “The decision will be made on whether I can ride my bike well or not, and that’s the priority. If I can ride my bike well I will race [in Holland], if not I will think about pulling the pin and committing through to the world champs.”
The road to Rio has not been an easy one for the Waikato-based Walker, but it’s a familiar pathway. Injuries are part and parcel of her game, and something she has had to deal with more than most.
Before London she had to endure a similar late qualifying surge after a broken shoulder had limited her competitive buildup. She has now suffered a dozen fractures to her arms over four different incidents, with the latest tumble seeing two new plates and 15 more screws inserted.
Late in 2014 Walker suffered a horror crash in California that resulted in a shattered arm, damaged knee and a serious concussion. She even contemplated retirement after battling major head issues during her nine-month rehabilitation.
But Walker bounces back. It’s what she does. It’s what made her one of the most credentialed, and respected, riders on the international circuit. She’s talented and terrific. But she’s also tough and tenacious.
The mental challenges are something Walker has learned to deal with. And she’s had plenty of practice.
“Of course there is going to be fear and there is going to be doubts there but I know how to put those to the side and focus on what I need to do to perform at 100 percent of what I’m capable of,” she says. “It’s part of what I do. I can ether choose to dwell on it and be frustrated or angry or whatever, or I can focus on being positive and gaining something out of it that I might not have had if I’d been healthy.
“In this case I’ve had a bigger strength block and I’m stronger than I was going to be and my core is stronger than it’s ever been. There is definitely a silver lining. I’m really focused on all the good things that come from it and just enjoying the journey.”
But Walker also puts things in a healthy perspective. Given all she’s been through, when she stands in those gates waiting to plunge downhill to that first mass jump, happy thoughts are the furthest thing from her mind.
“There will always be a level of fear when it comes to riding, and I’ve just been able to get better at being courageous,” she says. “The things you’re afraid of, the more you focus on them the less they’re actually scary.
“If you’re facing a fear of the dark, the more you go out in the dark the less scary it becomes. It’s the same for me. The more I face my fears on my bike, the less scary it is. I feel like it’s just part of the process.”
And for Walker there has been no better inspiration through the recovery, the rehab and the return to the bike than the thought of what she achieved in London with that magical ride to the silver.
“London gave me a massive appreciation of the journey and the whole four years where you work towards this one day. A BMX race is 32 seconds. You work all this time for that 32 seconds, and then it’s all over.
“I realised in that moment where I was getting my medal, it’s not just about that medal, it’s not just about that 32 seconds. It’s about the whole four years and about every day and about living to the fullest really.
“So I’ve been able to really enjoy this last four years, even though I’ve had a few setbacks. I’m enjoying the whole journey. When I get to Rio I’ll be as prepared as I can be and whatever happens I’ll know the journey has been absolutely incredible.”
Now that’s a healthy perspective.