Just 13, and a six-time world champion
Olympic medalist Sarah Walker may soon be looking over her shoulder at a speedy young namesake. Suzanne McFadden reports.
Leila Walker been a world champion for six years’ running; won her world titles in such far-flung places as Baku, Medellin, Zolder and Rock Hill.
A shelf on the lounge wall of her Cambridge home almost sags under the weight of her trophy collection. Her drive and maturity have led her to be reckoned as one of the most dominant riders – male or female – in her class.
Did I mention she’s only in her first year at high school?
Leila Walker is 13 years old, and a bike-riding phenomenon. Her 5ft 10in (178cm) height belies her age, and she speaks with the confidence and maturity of a teenager who’s seen the world.
As for her stature behind the handlebars of a BMX bike – she’s eons ahead of any other 13-year-old girl on the planet.
“She’s crazy determined, more than I’ve ever seen," her coach, former professional rider Matt Cameron, says. "You can’t predict the future, but she definitely has the heart of a champion.”
Since the age of eight, Walker has triumphed in her age-group at the BMX world championships every year without a bump.
“Yep, it’s pretty crazy,” Walker says of her six world titles. “And it definitely gets better each year. Especially now that I know and understand how hard people train to get there.
“And there’s also a sigh of relief after you know you’ve done it again.”
That’s something else that stands out about Walker. For a multi-world champion, she’s remarkably grounded and humble.
While her dream is to follow in the tracks of Sarah Walker, three-time BMX world champion and Olympic silver medallist (and no relation), Leila Walker is quite pragmatic about it.
“Obviously I would love to go the Olympics, that’s my overall goal. The whole experience would be amazing,” she says. “But I have many years ahead of me still and anything could happen.”
Walker’s parents have a lot to do with her down-to-earth nature. Leila (pronounced Lee-la) is the second of four Walker kids – who are all involved in multiple sports, including BMX. The world champion among them doesn’t get preferential treatment when it comes to delivering to the field, court or track.
“Life isn’t just about her,” says her mum, Lauren, who shares the sporting-parent duties with her husband, Lyle.
One of them will always accompany Leila to the annual world championships, but they try not to be overbearing or intrusive parents when she arrives at the track.
“She has self-managed since she was eight,” Lauren says. “The riders go into the pits – where there are adults she knows. There’s also a parent area but, to be fair, we haven’t really been there. She knows we’re up in the crowd.
“We leave it to her, because Lyle and I don’t ride a bike, so we can’t really help her. She’s lucky to have an awesome support network, and older riders who are so good to her.”
Don’t think that means the Walkers aren’t incredibly proud of their daughter. “She has grounded us a lot with what she’s done, and how she’s handled it. Sometimes I think ‘Holy cow, it’s pretty awesome’. But then she’s still just a kid, with us and with her friends,” her mother says.
Her daughter’s determination to succeed is driven in part by her stubbornness.
“She’s been really stubborn since she was little. And she doesn’t really do anything half-heartedly - basketball, netball, BMX… even in the classroom,” Lauren says. “She’s always been really driven.
“Her brother [Sam] is only 15 months older than her. And that’s been huge in her BMX success – they raced together a lot and that sibling rivalry pushed her really hard.”
New Zealand’s first BMX Olympian, Sarah Walker, started riding at 10, bored by watching her brother race. Kiwi teenager Rebecca Petch, 11th in the elite women’s field at this year’s worlds, has always trained with her elder brother.
Leila Walker was seven when she was introduced to BMX, watching her cousins race. She thought it looked like fun, and so her dad brought home a bike which Sam and Leila initially shared. Naturally they squabbled over it, and had to get a bike of their own.
“From the start, I really enjoyed it. I’ve always played other sports, but I really enjoy BMX most. I love the challenge and the push,” Leila says.
A little over a year after she jumped on her BMX, she was racing at the 2013 world championships in Auckland. The commentator simply called Walker “the Kiwi” as she led the way in the eight-year-old girls final on the indoor track.
Victory gave her automatic entry to the next world championships, in Rotterdam in the Netherlands, where she won the nine-year-old class. She took out the 10-year-olds’ trophy in Zolder, Belgium, in 2015; then the 11-year-olds in Medellin, Colombia, in 2016.
Last year, she was the top 12-year-old girl BMXer on the globe – dominating all of her races at Rock Hill, South Carolina. Her siblings – Sam, Noah and Beth - were there to witness it, and went to Disneyland afterwards.
Last month, Walker stood on the top tier of the dais for the sixth year running, this time in Baku, Azerbaijan. Her dad was with her. Again, she won all three of her qualifying motos, the semi-final and the final.
Next year could pose more of a challenge for the undefeated blonde dynamo. The rider who won silver in Baku, Lissi van Schijndel of the Netherlands, has made “good gains” on Walker. “It will be good if they both make it to the start gate next year and battle it out,” Lauren Walker says.
Walker’s coach is all too aware that his charge is at a critical age in her BMX career. It’s his job to make sure she stays happy, and keeps her wheels off the ground.
“This is the time when their minds can change; when things get scarier. Jumping scares people in our sport,” says Cameron. “Leila jumps beautifully now, but it’s up to me to continually challenge her to jump and push the boundaries further. She can’t relax.”
Cameron, a former New Zealand champion who spent five years competing full-time on the world circuit, is head coach of the new BMX National Performance Hub based in Cambridge, but he's been guiding Walker since he began coaching three years ago.
“I train her with riders the same age and ability, but male. I’ve treated her like a male rider, as far as skills and challenges go. And because of her competitive nature, she’s really excelled. Her skills component is her biggest strength,” Cameron says.
But there are assets that he hasn’t been able to teach her – her self-awareness and drive.
“No matter how hard she’s crashed, she’ll get up and race that next race with the same mindset, which isn’t common. Usually you have a crash and your confidence gets belted,” Cameron says. “She’s a gifted person and she works for it as well.”
Walker taps on wood when she talks about crashes and injuries. Her family live by the theory: If you don’t take risks, you don’t have fun.
“Obviously injury is quite a common thing in BMX. But I haven’t been too bad so far,” she says. “But as you get older and faster, it gets pretty gnarly and cut-throat.”
This year has been her worst. Two days before the national championships, she had the cast removed from her arm for a broken thumb, and still successfully defended her New Zealand No. 1 plate (the plate on handlebars which denotes a rider’s national ranking).
“Injuries and rehab – they come with the sport. It just makes it extra exciting when you get back on your bike,” she says.
The Waikato has become the dominant region in BMX racing across the country. Walker’s Cambridge club is particularly strong: “I think we have seven No. 1 riders this year, which is better than any other club,” she says.
Walker lives around the corner from the Avantidrome, “the home of cycling”, and once a week, rides on the indoor boards on a track bike. “Quite a few BMXers do it for endurance and leg power,” she says. “It’s good to get on a different bike and see where you sit.”
She’s taken a break from two wheels since the world championships though. BMX is predominantly a summer sport, which means Walker can play the other sports she enjoys.
She’s not bad at basketball – the Year 9 student has made the Cambridge High School senior premier girls team in her first year. She’s joined a social netball team halfway through the season, and it’s testing her competitive streak.
“It’s hard, when there’s one point in it, I’m like argh! I really want to win. But it’s great team and I like that it’s so relaxed,” she says.
It balances out the intensity of riding at a world champs: “When you’re on the [starting] gate and you realise there are seven other athletes at the top of their age from all around the world, it’s intense. Don’t get me wrong, nationals at home are pretty tough. But the world championships are a whole other level.”
While the paths of Sarah Walker and Leila Walker rarely meet, the BMX world champions stop and chat if they bump into each other at a race. The younger has huge respect for the elder. “I want to do what she’s done, and compete at the level that she does,” Leila says. “She’s a great rider and an amazing person, which is very inspiring to have in New Zealand.”
But first, Walker junior has “years of school to do”.