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Kai Sakakibara is riding the changing tide of life

Kai Sakakibara had his life mapped out.

The Australian BMX racer came into the original Olympic year ranked no.9 in the world ready to take on the rest of the qualifying events ahead of him as the clock ticked down to Tokyo 2020.

It was set to be a special moment for Kai and his younger sister Saya because of their deep connection with the Olympic host nation.

Born on Australia’s Gold Coast to a Japanese mother and British father, Kai spent six years of his early childhood in Japan, living in Fuchu City in western Tokyo. It was during their time in Japan's capital that Kai and Saya discovered their love for riding bikes.

Kai dreamt of competing at an Olympic Games in his mother’s homeland, winning a medal and sharing the experience with his sister. This was set to be one of the stories of Tokyo 2020 Olympics. 

But everything changed in an instant for the then 23-year-old during a World Cup round at Bathurst, New South Wales in February 2020.

Coming down from a jump, Sakakibara lost his balance heading into the curve and landed heavily on the right side of his body as other racers did their best to avoid him. Airlifted to Canberra Hospital, he had to go through surgery to relieve the pressure on his brain.

And just like that, his dream of winning Olympic gold had disappeared, and it turned into a fight for survival. Sakakibara spent six weeks in a coma before he was transferred to Liverpool Hospital's Brain Injury Rehabilitation Unit in Sydney's west to begin his next steps to recovery.

And that is quite literal too. Waking up from his coma, he was unable to speak, pointing to 'yes' and 'no' on a piece of paper to communicate with those around him.

“I’d be lying if I didn’t say the past year and a half has been hard,” Sakakibara told Tokyo 2020 from Fuchu City. “Even when I could wake up, I wasn't able to say anything, which is really weird now that I think back to that time.”

“First of all, it was all hard because basically, I couldn't even get out of bed, I need someone to help me. And that was a pretty tough time I couldn't even walk or talk so that's where we had the start. But I have made it to where I am today, which is really good.

“I obviously was really close to making it to the Olympics, and that part really sucked, but I have a sister Saya, who made it [all the] way to the Olympics, which was so special,” the former Oceanian BMX Champion added.

While the crash has impacted the 25-year-old's speech and movement to the right side of his body, Sakakibara hasn't let it hold him back as he continues to power forward.

From learning to talk and walk again to hopping back on the bike - decked out in his helmet and elbow pads of course - and slowly riding again for the first time in April 2021.

"Obviously, I only put my good ones on social media," Sakakibara said.

Being able to ride his bike again was a moment filled with an array of different emotions from excitement and happiness to anxiety and a feeling of being scared.

"I thought it is a bit of a mixture of all of them, but the first time when I started off on the three-wheel, which in itself is really cool. And then I got on to one of their bikes and then I got onto my bike as well, which is absolutely crazy."

"I was really psyched about that and I think about a couple of weeks before I left to come here (Japan), I went and rode the track at Sydney Olympic Park, which is awesome."

 

The last goal to complete

Kai Sakakibara had three goals. Firstly, get to Japan, secondly was to watch his sister race at the Olympic Games and lastly, run the Paralympic Torch Relay.

While he wasn’t able to be at the Ariake Urban Sports Park, the BMX Racing venue, to watch his sister compete, just being in the same city as her was special enough.

“I don't think sitting at home is what she would've wanted, but I still think she absolutely killed it,” he said of his younger sister.

“The biggest thing would have been to make it to into the stadium, but obviously that couldn't happen. But I just feel like the fact that we, my mum and I, we're both in the country was amazing and hopefully, she felt that as well.”

With goals number one and two complete, there is now just the small task of the Paralympic Torch Relay.

Speaking to Sakakibara ahead of the Paralympic flame's arrival into Tokyo, where it will be making its final journey to Tokyo Stadium for the Opening Ceremony on 24 August, he was looking forward to being a part of the whole experience.

"I am excited that I get to run 200m by myself," he said. "It's not very often that you get to run while the whole world is watching...I can't wait and will see how it goes.

"To be honest, I haven't even begun to understand what this means for me.

"I still don't believe it until it happens. I don't know why, but maybe after my crash I've decided that I'm not going to believe anything they could be real or fake," he added.

But not everything has gone to plan.

With the decision to take the Paralympic Torch Relay off public roads in Tokyo, torchbearers would hand over the flame at an alternative lighting ceremony held without spectators.

While Sakakibara was disappointed he wouldn't be able to run the 200m as planned (instead he walked to the next torchbearer to hand over the Paralympic flame) the 25-year-old, who didn't even know if he would be able to walk again just 18 months ago, is taking it all in stride.

"They are doing the best they can considering COVID, I can't really complain. It's a shame that I am not able to run the 200m, but I'm still getting the pass the torch around," he told Tokyo 2020 ahead of his participation in the Paralympic Torch Relay on 23 August.

"I am really excited about the upcoming day on the 23rd. It will be a big moment passing on the flame."

Before the events of 8 February 2020, dealing with change wasn't something Sakakibara thought he could deal with but now he's ready to face anything that is thrown his way.

"At the start, I thought I couldn't deal with the thought of anything changing, but it turns out that last year and the start of this year has taught me otherwise," he said. "I think that I am ready for any changes that might happen on the day."

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