Sakakibara lifts to qualify for BMX semis

Australia's Saya Sakakibara (second from left) is through to the BMX semi-finals in Tokyo.
Australia's Saya Sakakibara (second from left) is through to the BMX semi-finals in Tokyo.

Kai Sakakibara had an anxious wait before his sister Saya delivered with his birthday present from the Olympic BMX track.

But after the last 18 months, her poor start to Thursday's racing was a minor hiccup.

She went off course in her first race, then won her final round to qualify for Friday's BMX racing semi-finals.

Saya later revealed she had been sick earlier in the day.

It was a turbulent opening day of BMX competition for Australia, with Lauren Reynolds also progressing to the semis as Anthony Dean crashed in his opening race and eventually failed to advance.

Kai, who turned 25 on Thursday, should have joined his 21-year-old sister on the Australian BMX racing team for the Tokyo Games.

But in February last year, he crashed heavily while racing at a World Cup round in Bathurst.

Sakakibara suffered severe brain trauma and was in a coma for two months.

He has amazed doctors with his ongoing recovery - he can ride a bike again - but a long road still lies ahead.

He is in Tokyo to be part of the Paralympic torch relay, travelling with their Japanese-born mum and grandmother, but COVID-19 restrictions mean they cannot attend the BMX venue.

For a while on Thursday, it was not happy TV viewing for the Sakakibaras in their "Let's Go Saya" T-shirts.

"I was so scared, because if she made one error, like she did in the first one, she would have been out," Kai told the Seven Network.

"But she didn't. I feel great."

Asked if he was proud of her, Kai replied "definitely, but she still has tomorrow to go, so that's when I will be really proud of her."

Saya said she had spoken to Kai before her racing.

"I basically just wished him happy birthday and obviously I'm here for the both of us," she said.

Saya and Reynolds were drawn in the same heat of six riders, with the top four after the three rounds progressing to the semis and the medal race to follow on Friday.

While Reynolds posted a third place, a second and a fourth to cruise through, Saya had her race-one mishap and faded after a fast start in race two.

That left her in big trouble, sitting equal-last overall with two other riders.

Leading from the start again in race three, Sakakibara threw her bike at the line to beat Swiss rider Zoe Claessens by a tyre width.

But it didn't matter - a top-two finish was more than enough.

She finished fourth overall with 11 points, four clear of the next rider.

There would be no such comeback for Dean, who finished last overall in his heat after the race-one tumble.

Alise Willoughby, the American wife of Australian BMX star Sam, dominated her heat.

Sam, who was left paralysed from the waist down after a 2016 training crash, coaches his wife, Reynolds and Dean.

Dutch star Niek Kimmann showed no ill effects after crashing into an official at training earlier this week, also easily reaching the semis.

Australian Associated Press