When most people are 17, they split their time between rolling their eyes at their parents, counting down the days until they turn 18 and can hit the clubs (at least here in Australia) and reluctantly studying for their final exams. Then, there’s Saya Sakakibara.
At just 17, Saya is a five time BMX female world champion, Red Bull athlete and hot favourite for the 2020 Olympics. She also happens be a year 12 student studying for her final exams, meaning she’s currently pulling off one of the biggest juggling acts of all time!
We were lucky enough to chat to Saya about what it’s like to be a female athlete in a male-dominated sport, how she stays motivated and how she manages to balance everything. You can read our Q+A with Saya below.
SL: How did you first get into BMX?
My brother Kai began racing when I was four years old and I had to attend his practices and races with my parents. My parents bought me a bike to keep me entertained and I fell in love with riding and have been doing it ever since.
SL: How do you balance BMX with your studies? What’s your secret to staying organised and maintaining your energy levels?
I work my training sessions in around my study schedule, so some days I get off early and am able to train twice. I fit the first session in before lunch, then focus on homework for a couple of hours before heading off to another training session on the track before dinner.
The key to staying organised is being up to date with my studies around competition or high training demand times. If I am up to date it means I can make BMX my sole focus when I need to.
SL: How do you go about maintaining a social life with everything else you’ve got going on?
Maintaining social life has been pretty hard this past year. Becoming more serious in BMX and doing year 12 at school has meant going out with friends has been put aside. I definitely miss having lots of time on my hands and hanging out with friends, but when you’re competing at such a high level, those things seem to be compromised.
SL: Many people think of BMX as quite a male-dominated sport, have you ever encountered any sexism or people underestimating you because of your gender?
Absolutely not. BMX is a growing sport, both females and males are so competitive and the competition field is so tight. In present day, the male-dominated idea is rapidly fading so both genders are respected equally by officials, spectators and other riders. Fortunately, I have never encountered sexism in the sport, and I definitely don’t feel like I’m a female in the sport, but rather just an athlete in it.
SL: What are your plans for after you graduate school — will you pursue BMX full time?
After I graduate, I’ll definitely pursue BMX full time. It’s been my dream career since I was young. I’ve known for quite some time now that BMX fits in my lifestyle, and it is my passion. I can’t think of anything else I want to dedicate my time and energy to, other than BMX!
SL: Have you ever had any serious injuries doing BMX?
I’ve been very fortunate to not have any major injuries — not even broken bones — in my 14 years of riding!
SL: At 17, you’ve already achieved more than most people do in a lifetime! Where do you get your incredible drive and discipline from?
My drive and discipline came slowly from many years of being pushed to my limits both physically and mentally by my Dad, brother Kai and my coaches. From the time I was young, they were the ones who knew my capabilities and pushed me to try new challenges and to keep improving. Thanks to years of this, I’ve developed my own motivation and a sense of my own abilities in order to challenge myself and improve on my own.
SL: What does your training schedule look like?
I am currently training once a day, six times a week with each session lasting for an hour and a half. Sometimes I will train twice a day as I usually use our home gym, but have also recently been training with a strength and conditioning coach at his gym.
SL: Who is your number one role model?
More of a top two right now! Sarah Walker, New Zealand BMX racer and my brother, Kai Sakakibara.
SL: Do you ever feel pressure to be a role model to younger girls and how do you deal with that?
I don’t think I ever feel pressure to be a role model, and I’ve never considered myself one. But I do make sure I take the time to look after the younger riders who come for a chat or take photos and keep a smile on their faces. All because I remember looking up to the elite riders when I was young and how amazing it was when I got to talk to them and ask for their autograph, and I love to somehow give back to all the fans who have supported me throughout my career.
SL: What advice would you give to young Sporteluxe readers who want to get into a sport like BMX but are afraid or don’t know where to start?
A sport like BMX might be daunting at first, but if you think about every BMX racer out there, they all started out with just a bike and a desire to go have some fun. That is exactly the same with any other sport; so if a sport interests you, just give it a go and always have fun ☺.
Getting to know you
Born and raised: I was born in Japan and moved to Australia when I was seven.
Currently living: Helensburgh, NSW.
Known for: Being a BMX racer.
Personal motto: You’ll never regret giving 100%
Success is: Where you are personally happy with the outcome. Whether it is in a competition or in life.
People are surprised that I: can speak Japanese.
I’m most proud of: committing to a sport and working hard to make it into a career.
My most used emoji is: <3
Wake up time: 6:30 am for school or 8:30 am on weekends.
Morning ritual: Breakfast before anything else!
Healthy snack that’s $$$ but worth it: Acai Bowl.
Last thing I do before bed: Flick through social media.
Guilty pleasure: Binge watching Netflix!
3 things vital to my day: 1. A good and filling breakfast 2. A can of Red Bull for a good energy hit before training 3. social media.
Favourite cafe: Nulla Nulla, Cronulla NSW
Favourite juice: Apple.
Coffee order: Cappuccino with 1 sugar.
Website I check religiously: YouTube
If I was an animal, I’d be… a dog.
You can follow Saya on Instagram at @sayasakakibara