There’s plenty that scares Olympic silver medalist Sarah Walker. The possibility of a career-ending injury, failure to perform to potential, and having to start her life again once her riding days are over – all of these scenarios form a sometimes grim reality for New Zealand’s top BMX rider.
Sarah’s experiences of top-level sport have been far from glamorous. She was nearly forced out of the London 2012 Olympic Games with a dislocated shoulder, where she eventually came second.
When she had to withdraw from the World Championships – held in Auckland last month – with a broken arm and collarbone, her worst injury fears almost transpired.
This ever-present risk that her BMX journey could be over at any time has spurred the athlete to “future proof” her life.
As she pushes her helmet off her forehead, diamond stud earrings contrasting against the dirt on her face, Sarah admits it’s sometimes hard to think about the future, when she’s trying to make the most of the present.
“I guess you accept that stuff like injuries can happen, but you always kind of hope it won’t,” Sarah confesses.
“I had broken my arm five weeks before the world championships, but thought I was okay to race. When I crashed during a practice run, I tried to protect my arm and fell hard onto my collarbone.
“I tried to compete, but knew my shoulder wasn’t good. I just rolled around the track, and everyone was cheering and shouting. It was amazing, but I burst into tears. It was one of the most special and hardest moments I’ve had in the sport.”
Now recovered from her injuries, Sarah says the last month has made her even more grateful for her life outside of the sport she loves, including her other great passions, architecture and interior design, which she explored when she designed and built her own home.
“I needed to be wise about my future after BMX, so I thought I needed a little bit of something here in Cambridge to feel more secure,” she explains, looking towards her new home, which sits only 200m away from Waikato’s BMX track, where she’s just finished a blistering training run.
“Having the track right here was definitely a drawcard when I was looking for a section,” she says with a smile.
“I feel really grounded now. I will be 28 after the next Olympics, and who knows how long I’ll ride after that. Starting again will be difficult.”
It’s taken a few years, but the Sarah Walker who has an impressive slew of endorsement and promotion deals is a far cry from the one who first burst onto the cycling scene in 2008.
She was expected to win a medal at the Beijing Olympics, only to finish a disappointing fourth, which she says was due to her attitude.
“I didn’t believe in myself,” she says frankly. “It was only two years out from London when I started telling myself I was good enough. I didn’t know how to tell myself that I could get gold. When I finally did start saying it, that was scary."
“I knew some people would think I was being cocky, but that’s what I needed to win. I had to learn confidence because, for my whole life, I’ve never been able to put myself out there.”
She’s also had to learn how to ask for help – something that doesn’t come naturally to the Kawerau-raised champion.
“I’ve always been driven, but it was learning how to say it out loud. Coming from a small town, there was definitely some tall poppy syndrome at school."
“It’s hard to be okay with asking for help. I can’t retire off my sport, and we only have a short window here, so it’s a case of making hay while the sun is shining.”
While she would like to just hop on her bike and ride, Sarah, who got into the sport after her younger brother Matt started riding 15 years ago, knows that she couldn’t race without incredible support from New Zealand, and more girls than ever before are taking up BMX.
“I don’t know how to say this without sounding up myself,” says Sarah. “I’d rather girls look up to me than the Kardashians or something!”
She’s also acutely aware of the position she holds in her hometown, which she adores.
“Kawerau does have a bad reputation, but there’s almost this mentality that, because this is how it’s always been, this is how it’s always going to be.
“I just hope I can show them that it doesn’t have to be like that.”
These days, with an interior design course already under her belt, a little bit of pressure has been taken off Sarah’s recently healed shoulder.
During the process of designing and building her home, which saw her elbow deep in Pink Batts and building plans for the better part of a year, she discovered a forgotten passion she’s held since she was a kid.
“Designing houses is something I’ve always dreamed about,” she says.
“I think after BMX, architecture and project management would be really cool.”
But the biking star knows there’s no time to waste.
“I’ve had to learn to be proactive, and not wait for someone to come to me. I have to go and get what I want."
“I think that’s just the Kawerau in me!”
Kelly Bertrand Photos: michelle hyslop • hair and make-up: luisa petch