BMX rider Kai Sakakibara is opening his eyes after seven weeks in a coma when he crashed in pursuit of the Tokyo Olympics. So much has changed in that time.
BMX rider Kai Sakakibara is opening his eyes after seven weeks in a coma when he crashed in pursuit of the Tokyo Olympics. So much has changed in that time.

Young man emerging from coma to a very different world

Kai Sakakibara is starting to open his eyes after laying in a hospital bed in a coma for seven weeks and so much has changed, in the outside world and in his.

On February 8, the 23-year-old BMX rider crashed while racing in Bathurst as he and sister Saya both chased selection for this year's Tokyo Olympics.

But that was when the Olympics were still on and the world - or at least Australia - was still a very normal place.

His parents, Martin and Yuki, have been by his side in Canberra Hospital every day from the moment he was airlifted by helicopter with critical head injuries and had surgery to relieve pressure on his brain.

"The doctors told us that they weren't confident he was going to survive," Martin told The Advertiser this week.

"We have a meeting with them every Monday and on the second or third meeting they said at that time they weren't confident he was going to survive."

The Sakakibara siblings were both racing in Bathurst when Kai has his accident in February. Picture: Adam Head.
The Sakakibara siblings were both racing in Bathurst when Kai has his accident in February. Picture: Adam Head.

By then BMX racing didn't matter anymore. Nothing did, as long as Kai made it.

"It's tough, we're up and down, there is numbness and over-thinking, then under-thinking, it's a whole range of emotions you've got to deal with," Martin said.

Kai was taken off the sedative medication which until that point had stopped him from moving and some time after he opened his eyes, and later started using them to track people around the room.

Just a few weeks ago Kai was taken off a respirator and able to breathe for himself which meant he could be moved from intensive care and on to a high care ward.

He hasn't spoken or shown any emotion, but his parents talk to him and they've been playing music in his room.

At some point they would like to be able to tell him that he's had an accident, he's in hospital, the Tokyo Olympics are off and a virus has virtually shut down the entire world, and he would be able to understand.

But they don't know if any of that is possible at this stage.

"We're not sure about his level of understanding, he may not be aware of that (that he was a BMX racer preparing for the Olympics)," Martin said.

"Our world has been turned upside down and the whole world has been turned upside down on top of that.

Kai Sakakibara is opening his eyes and tracking people around the room in a small step forward in his recovery. Picture: Cycling Australia.
Kai Sakakibara is opening his eyes and tracking people around the room in a small step forward in his recovery. Picture: Cycling Australia.

"We don't know what the end goal is but we get these little hints that progress is happening and that makes us feel good, they're little things but they all add up right?

"The neurosurgeons call it emerging from a coma, people don't just wake up but go through a gradual process of regaining consciousness over a long period of time which could take months.

"This is the start of the recovery process and the doctors are happy with the improvements he has made so far, but do remind us that they are not able to predict the future.

"It's a day by day thing, what can he do today that he didn't do yesterday?

"We know what we want to happen but that's not necessarily going to help thinking about that either.

"There is a fine line with communication because everyone wants to know what's going on, but no one really understands and you can't convey that in a couple of sentences."

Martin, Yuki and Saya were all at the track at Bathurst on the day of Kai's accident, and Yuki was with him in the helicopter when he was flown to Canberra.

While Saya eventually returned home to NSW to continue training, Martin and Yuki are staying a 15-minute walk away from the hospital where they visit Kai daily.

But Kai is now only allowed one visitor, once a day, due to the ongoing coronavirus crisis.

"That's alright though, that's not the biggest challenge we're dealing with," Martin said.

"We have been absolutely amazed by the care and professionalism provided by the staff in the Canberra hospital. The ICU, acute care and neurosurgeons have all been incredible and there is no doubt without their skills, support infrastructure and genuine ability to look after critically ill patients, Kai would not be here today."

While Kai has been in hospital the family has started a #KaiFight77 social media hashtag and been overwhelmed by the outpouring of support from the BMX and sporting community via messages, emails and music playlists for their son and brother.

"And they came from everywhere - Australia of course but France, Belgium, Japan, Italy, America, England, all over the place," Martin said.

 

Sakakibara’s family has received music playlists from his friends and fans while he has been in hospital. Picture: Cycling Australia.
Sakakibara’s family has received music playlists from his friends and fans while he has been in hospital. Picture: Cycling Australia.

One of those who reached out was Australian Olympic silver medallist Sam Willoughby who has been on his own road to recovery since being paralysed in a BMX training accident in 2016.

"We've had a good chat with Sam, he's put his hand up and said he's more than happy to help out. He's been through things and so has Alise (his wife) and they've been really good," Martin said.

"It's taught us a lot about how awesome Kai is, the support we've received just goes to show how he was able to engage with all of these people and we never really thought about it before.

"One of the things I've realised is that he has or had this amazing ability to engage with people and make them feel important, he makes them feel great, good about themselves.

"He'd go and work with the kids and they'd feel awesome about themselves, then he'd talk to the parents and they'd feel good about their kids and about them as parents, and he would make me feel like an awesome dad - which I'm not - but that's how he'd make me feel."

Kai and Saya were born in Australia but spent six years in Japan where they honed their BMX skills and began the road to multiple national titles.

Sakakibara is their samurai name from their mother who is Japanese while Martin is from Oxford in the UK.

"One of the things Kai says is he's 50 per cent Japanese, 50 per cent English and 100 per cent Australian," Martin said.

"He is very proud of all of those things."

 

Saya and Kai would get up early before school to exercise in their garage as they committed to their sport. Picture: Dylan Robinson.
Saya and Kai would get up early before school to exercise in their garage as they committed to their sport. Picture: Dylan Robinson.

As difficult as it's been, Saya, 20, has maintained her focus on the Tokyo Games which have been postponed to 2021.

"Saya knows she's got some tasks ahead of her and has to prepare for those, we all have, it's got to be business as usual as much as possible," Martin said.

"She's doing well, she has got a lot of her resilience and structure from Kai, they are both amazing and extremely motivated.

"They've had to make sacrifices for years, even when they were at school they would get up early and go into our garage and do exercises, then their friends at school would be having parties and they'd have to make a decision about what they're going to do, how they'd manage their time and what their focus was.

"So this is not a new thing for either of them, it absolutely fits in with what they do, making decisions and working with what you've got.

"These things that are happening, are they good? No, but you manage it and build your priorities and goals and adjust to it.

"It's a simple example but if you've got a sprint day planned for a Wednesday afternoon and it's raining, you go and ride the Wattbike instead, so either way you keep driving forward to meet your goals."

While Saya at least knows what her next major goal is and when it will be held (July 23 to August 8, 2021), Kai's fight continues for now without a timeline or a destination, but the determination that has always been with him remains.

Originally published as Kai emerging from coma to a very different world