Midway between Rotorua and the Bay of Plenty coast, Sarah Walker looked out of the window of the family home in Kawerau. Her brother Matt was pulling a wheelie on his BMX.
It was her go now.
“I knew,” she said, “if he could do it, I could. And, being the older sister, obviously I knew I could do it better.”
She wasn’t wrong.
Three world titles, and an Olympic silver medal, would indicate she was on the money. She certainly could do it. The 34-year-old will take a similar attitude to the Subaru Impreza WRX she’s using to make her rally debut in Otago at the end of the month.
Walker couldn’t be less fazed by what lies ahead. Naturally, she’s nervous, possibly even apprehensive. But intimidated? Not a bit of it. Certainly not by the number of men competing on the South Island’s most prominent motorsport event. In fact, it doesn’t even enter her head.
“I haven’t consciously thought: ‘I’m a girl doing a guy’s sport.’ My thinking has always been more like: ‘Of course I can do it!’
“I understand there’s a balance: we want to show girls and women that they can do everything, but we have to do that while remembering it shouldn’t actually be a thing. It’s not really about gender, it’s about enjoying yourself, competing and doing your best.”
And, as the daughter of a PE teacher, doing her best and being ultimately competitive is something Walker’s grown up with.
“Dad’s always been about being able to do things,” she said. “It’s a kind of, ‘fake it ’til you make it’ attitude. I feel like I’m confident enough in replicating what other people are doing.”
Is that an approach to rallying?
“I’m not sure,” she smiled. “I haven’t really watched enough of it! I’ve spent a lot of time playing Colin McRae Rally when I was younger and I think, if I’d gone for an alternative career, I would have been a race car driver.
“That’s why I’m super-stoked to have this opportunity at the Otago Rally. Rog [Oakley] and the organizers have tried to get me involved a couple of times, but it’s always clashed.”
He’s given me some good advice, telling me to take a little bit of time and get used to the car and the surroundings rather than trying to push from the outsetSarah Walker
Until now. Walker will take the Subaru driven by fellow Olympian Hamish Bond last year. She tested the car a couple of times and impressed already.
“The feedback from the drivers training has been good,” she said. “When I drove at the media day, I was told I was better than Hamish, and that he had showed a lot of promise! But my goal isn’t to be better than a rower, it’s to be better than some of the other drivers.”
There’s a hint of mischief in the voice, but she’s deadly serious.
“I know Hamish,” she said. “He and I both live in Cambridge, where all the cyclists, the rowers and all the sportspeople live. He’s given me some good advice, telling me to take a little bit of time and get used to the car and the surroundings rather than trying to push from the outset. It’s good advice. I don’t want to crash on the first stage.”
Hayden Paddon and Emma Gilmour have also been on hand for advice. And more…
“Emma’s amazing, it’s invaluable to have her around. She’s lending me some overalls. Hayden’s also been chatting a little bit. He sent me a video of himself at Otago, breaking a stage record last year.
“I watched it, and I was like: “I don’t need to be that fast. I don’t need to be that fast!”
“It’s a bucket list thing to be jumping in a rally car and, right now, I just can’t wait.”
Talking to athletes at Walker’s level, you can’t help but be impressed with the commitment when they’re going into something new.
She knows faking it until she makes it will only get her so far. Hence the prep.
“I think the pacenotes are going to be really important,” she said. “When I was on the driver and the media day, I really noticed the times were getting quicker when I was listening and committing to the notes.”
If anything, she over-committed.
“My instructor felt I’d become a little bit robotic in my approach,” she added. “It’s like I was almost listening too hard. I need to find that balance between the notes and having the instinct to back my own abilities.”
The transition from pedal power to horsepower and two to four wheels is nothing new. Defending American champion and Subaru Motorsports USA star Brandon Semenuk is two from two in the defense of his title this season.
And he’s one of the most recognizable freeride mountain bikers in the world.
Walker’s not so sure that theory is entirely watertight.
“I think, for me, it comes more from gaming,” she said. “I’ve done a fair bit of that. The natural balance coming from two to four wheels? I’m not sure. A bunch of us BMX riders used to go karting in downtime when we were at competitions around the world. I wouldn’t say the talent always transferred!
“The priority for me in Otago is to bring the car to the finish line and to enjoy myself.”
She’s almost there. There’s a pause. Just a brief one. She can’t help herself. Go on then.
“It would be nice to beat the odd rally driver as well!”
Female, male, she doesn’t care. They’re all just drivers. And rivals.