The Willoughbys on helping Kai Sakakibara through serious injury: "It can put a smile on his face"

With their own experiences in mind, Sam and Alise Willoughby are doing their best to help their injured counterpart.

By ZK Goh ·

When Australian BMX rider and Olympic hopeful Kai Sakakibara was seriously injured in a World Cup race crash in February, it was a familiar situation for Olympic silver medallists Sam and Alise (Post) Willoughby.

Sam, Sakakibara's fellow Australian and London 2012 medallist, crashed in training in September 2016 and suffered a career-ending and life-changing spinal cord injury.

Alise, who had won silver a month prior at Rio for Team USA, stuck by him through his recovery and helped keep him going through the difficult times.

Now, they're both doing the same for Sakakibara, raising funds by doing challenges despite being in lockdown in California.

"I remember seeing things that people did for me," Sam told the Olympic Channel in a recent interview. "It definitely brings your spirits up."

Alise added: "It can put a smile on his face to remember [he's] supported."

How the Willoughbys are keeping Kai Sakakibara's spirits up

When Australia's Kai Sakakibara suffered serious injuries in a race crash i...

Speaking on a video call from San Diego, the couple reflected on the 12 months since the Olympic Channel last spoke to the pair in April 2019.

Alise became BMX world champion for the second time after winning the 2019 Worlds in Heusden-Zolder, Belgium, a win she describes as "extremely rewarding".

She had been looking forward to defending her title on home soil in Houston, Texas, this month before the coronavirus outbreak struck.

The Willoughbys also discussed what they've been doing at home in isolation – a lot of cooking and house renovation – and what BMX can continue to do to avoid more serious injuries like Sam's and Sakakibara's.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Becoming world champion again

Olympic Channel (OC): It's been a while since we last spoke, a lot has happened since then. Alise, you became world champion for the second time. What was that like? Being world champion brings with it so many connotations. What was that like winning your second title?

Alise Willoughby (AW): It was an extremely rewarding one. I think obviously the first one is it was an amazing feeling, but then to be able to back it up within just a few short years and having come so close even in Baku the year in between, I think it was it was just an amazing feeling. Let us know that we're going down the right track with the training side of things. And, you know, coming into an Olympic year, knowing that Houston was supposed to host, well, I don't know, still supposed to host the world championships for 2020.

So it was a pretty cool thing to know I'd be coming into an Olympic year wearing those world champion stripes and hoping to defend a world title at home leading into 2020.

OC: Well, what about you, Sam? What was that like for you? Because watching from the sidelines as a coach, you can only really do so much when it comes down to the actual race. It's all up to Alise.

Sam Willoughby (SW): Yeah, exactly. I obviously get very nervous watching and that's the thrill. I think as a competitor, you really enjoy those moments of it. You know, putting in all the work and putting that puzzle together and then getting there on competition day and and battling for your spots. I mean, any time she wins, it's an awesome feeling. I think I just love the problem-solving side of that, so no race day is every perfect, no training day is ever perfect. And I'm just trying to adapt and make the best situation possible.

AW: Yeah, that one was definitely a bit of an emotional one as far as, I started off my first race, I had crashed and I was so frustrated. It was raining and windy and it was just like a repeat of we'd had the world championships at that venue in 2015 and we'd both been leading the finals that year in the rain and crazy weather as well. And both had fallen in the second corner and lost our world title. So I think it was kind of eerily deja vu crashing in the first moto of the day in the 2019 world championships. And to turn that around together was a challenge, but it was it was testing and it was good for us to go through that where like you said, wasn't a perfect day by any means.

OC: Being world champion means you get to wear the rainbow jersey, which obviously is something special for any cyclist in any discipline. So what does that mean to you when you get to wear it and the race?

AW: I always draw a lot of confidence getting to wear the rainbow jersey at any race. You know, it's it holds a lot of weight and it helps build confidence. I think this time around it's been so successful since that 2019 worlds. I mean, I've had a lot of race wins and coming into this year was feeling amazing and was in great shape and won the first few World Cups in that rainbow jersey. And that's a pretty special feeling to get to, you know, race in front of – the World Cups we did race were in Australia and got to race in front of, you know, our second family in those stripes and cross the line out front and get to address everyone wearing that that special jersey was pretty cool. And I think racing in that, whenever we get back to it, getting to retain that and racing it again will be a pretty awesome thing.

Helping Kai Sakakibara

OC: As you mentioned, we've had a few races on the World Cup circuit this season. You guys were obviously there in Bathurst, Australia, when Kai Sakakibara had his incident. How did you guys find out about that? Were you watching the race? What did you hear about it; what were your immediate reactions?

SW: I was watching it because I was sitting up there watching all the racing and it was one of those things, it kind of fell out of my sight a bit. Any time someone's down for as long as he was, and then the helicopter comes, yeah, it's a scary, scary time. And probably an all-too-familiar one for me. Just hoping for the best, really. No one really knew at that point. It was all obviously very private and just trying. And we're all just hoping and praying that he was gonna pull through.

AW: And for me, I was actually the next race lined up, lining up to get, getting into the gate while their race was going as the first elite women's race. And I didn't know who had crashed or what had happened. We just got pulled off the gate eventually. Then they said two minutes, turned into five minutes. And then everyone's circling around and then all of a sudden you knew who it was. And his sister Saya was in the gate behind me, and she was waiting. Like, no one really knew what was going on. And it's always eerie, you never want to see a fellow competitor down like that. But yeah, we just continue to show our support the best ways we can.

SW: I think as well in that immediate time, I think for me like having Alise racing and a couple of the other guys and girls that I help, almost there's not much we could do for Kai other than hope, and hope that he was going to pull through and be okay. But also, at that point they were still talking of running the race and you're trying to make sure they're in a good headspace, because the last thing you want is someone going back out there, you know, after seeing that, not being in the right headspace, and it was already bad conditions and a tough track.

OC: Could you tell us a bit about what you're doing to raise funds for Kai?

SW: I think everyone's done a few things like initially when Kai got hurt. And then just the craziness of the world, just the world came to a stop, literally. And it was really hard, obviously for people, for tracks to do fundraisers right now for, you know, even to do jersey giveaways. You know, the mailing is taking longer than normal and it's just hard to co-ordinate and put things together. So I've been thinking for a few weeks of something to try to come up with that I could be involved with, and create a bit of buzz. Create some some buzz around him and hopefully raise some funds. That's the ultimate goal out of it, because he's got a long fight ahead and he needs all the support he can get.

And so, yeah, it was just a a small thing that we did a little bench press challenge in our garage. We did one for the guys and one for the girls. So you got to do 77 reps to the guys with 77 kilos and time it, and however long it takes, you got to donate 77 dollars because that was Kai's race number and then you got to donate a dollar for every minute that it takes you after that. And then for the girls we did the same thing but with 77 pounds (35 kg).

It was just a good way if I think people to be active, and then obviously with the power of social media, it's easy to push it out there and and try to get more and more people doing it. So it was it was a small little thing that raised a little bit of money.

We definitely need to keep doing more and more because we need to get Kai back up on his feet.

AW: And more than anything, I think it can put a smile on his face, whenever he sees that support, you know, and I think that that's important, to remember you're supported. And like Sam said, the whole world just kind of came to a stop. Obviously, it was a big deal what happened for Kai. And then, you know, the whole globe went into a pandemic. And I don't want to say it's easy to forget, but overlooked. I know, all of a sudden, the whole world's in a frenzy, and it's important to remember the things that are still important to us through this time.

SW: I think as well, it's just a familiar situation, like being in a hospital bed. And I remember seeing things that people did for me, if they did fun little challenges, or friends of mine racing with my name on their jersey and you see stuff like that. And it definitely brings your spirits up and makes you push that little bit harder in rehab or whatever you're doing that day. So hopefully it brightens Kai's day going forward and we can continue to do stuff him.

AW: And it's a challenge for everyone because us cyclists, I don't think too many of us are too great at bench pressing, so we're all struggling. And it's good to fight through that. And I think with all the challenges going on with the pandemic and just everyone stuck at home, I think a challenge is a great way to get people involved and feel part of something.

OC: His recovery is going to be tough, it's going to be private for him and his family. But having been through what you've been through Sam, have you reached out to them? What's the conversations like that you've had with Saya or his family?

SW: We've seen Saya at a race in Houston, literally the weekend before the whole world kinda stopped. That was good to see her, and she, I thought, was handling it really well and was being very brave. And I've had a couple of couple of chats with Kai's dad, so that's been good. The situation, in so many ways… this is different, obviously, a head injury compared to a spinal cord injury. But the process is very similar. So just trying to be a shoulder to lean on if he needs it.

And I know that when I was in hospital, just how much help it was to my family when people that had been through similar things to me reached out and gave a couple of words of encouragement or what to expect. Because there can be a lot of negativity from doctors or from whoever.

Just knowing how to deal with that and knowing how to strategise the whole thing to keep yourself moving forward is important.

OC: Now with Kai's injury, your injury Sam, Jelle van Gorkom, your good friend Tory Nyhaug has had to retire because of his concussion. Is there a way the sport can make itself safer?

SW: First of all, the greatest thing about our sport is that safety is number one. I mean, you can't even get on a BMX track unless you have long sleeves, gloves, long pants and full face helmets. I think if anything, we tackle the safety issue very well, you know, right from day one. And it's just one of those things as sports progress and the level continues to get pushed, unfortunately, there is sometimes injuries.

And I mean, in our sport, I think to this point it's been amazing the low amount of serious injuries that the sport has had. And unfortunately, there has been a few in recent times. But for the most part, the amount of people that race or do sport around the world and the amount of times that people, you know, set foot on a BMX track every day, every week, I think we're doing very well. I think for the most part, we've remained ahead of the game, helmet technology now is amazing, you look at the neck brace technology that's coming out.

AW: Education for people to just be aware of, you know, how to handle those situations and make sure everyone gets the best possible care immediately, and comes back from any little spills that they may have in an appropriate manner. And as always, I think race organisers and and riders, everyone needs to remember that safety is first. And I think we have done that pretty well for the most part.

Life in quarantine and returning to racing

OC: What exactly are you doing at the moment to pass the time in quarantine? I imagine Netflix is probably getting quite a hammering at the moment, are you doing DIY? Baking, video games, that sort of thing?

AW: We're not really gamers, so we haven't been doing gaming, but cooking like crazy and trying all the recipes which been good.

SW: We got a smoker right before this whole craziness this happened. So we've been smoking a lot of food on the smokers and it's perfect timing. I mean, we've done a couple of eight hour smokes, ribs and whole chickens.

AW: Diet's not as important right now! (laughs)

SW: Alise has completely reconstructed our garage, which was very overdue. We had about six years of junk in there.

AW: I will share the 'after' photos once I'm done, but I don't think I'll ever show the 'before' photos!

We got a little home gym set up just before it all happened.

That was amazing timing because Sam's been working out at the public gym for a long time. And he had a feeling it was coming, that everything was going to shut down as New York and other states in the U.S. were starting to do stay-at-home orders. He was like, let's get over there and get something so we have it. And literally the next day that everything shut down and even the training centres all shut down within a few days. So I think it was really good timing on our behalf there; we've been able to get some home workouts in as well.

OC: Some athletes say that they lost a bit of motivation when they heard about the Tokyo 2020 postponement, did that happen to you, or almost was it a case of, 'it's the Olympics, I don't need that extra motivation, the Olympics in itself is a motivation'?

AW: I'm not saying I'm not motivated in the long run. One hundred percent, that's the goal and that's the aim, and it doesn't change, but it is still hard to hear that. You're on the final 20 weeks or something like that left, and then that changed to 16 months. So, you know, you can't have the exact same strategy or timeline. So you need to reset, refocus. I think it's just adjusting to that and trying to make sure you take that as a positive and and look at what you can gain in that time and that motivation comes.

OC: Everyone's looking forward to getting back to racing, getting sports back, and everyone around the world almost seems to be approaching Tokyo with the mindset that it's going to be a very emotional Games. What would winning a medal at Tokyo mean to you after all of this?

AW: I think it's a badge of honour because you're overcoming another challenge and another… an adversity that no one's dealt with before, you know, it's another inaugural moment and a historical moment. It's not just sport, but the world. All eyes will be on all sports in Tokyo. Everyone's gonna be very excited. And I think it could be a great platform and great thing for people to watch. It could be bigger than ever.

Everyone is going to feel pretty united getting to compete together and put on a heck of a show for the whole world.

So I think it would be an amazing thing to come through this and find success. Because it's just like I said, another challenge, uncharted waters, and if you can overcome that, it's something you can take as strength anywhere in life.