As partially-sighted BMX rider Hunter Stirling-Lindsay was preparing for a warm-up lap at the 2019 AIMS Games, he pulled out a treasured white race shirt he’d picked up at a fundraiser.
It had been worn in overseas competition by his role model, Olympian and former world champion Sarah Walker.
“She won the silver medal [at the London Olympics] in 2012 and she’s a Kiwi,” he said, fitting his neck brace, securing his shoes, pushing his padded helmet in to place.
Hunter, who is representing Alexander Primary in the Year 8 boys’ BMX event, has a condition called congenital nystigmus. His eyesight is changeable but, in general, he has no peripheral vision.
He can only see what is directly in front of him; not left or right, not above or below. To see his feet, he must dip his chin so his eyes face directly at the ground.
Hunter, 13, has been racing since he was six years old. Before each competition, BMX New Zealand allows Hunter to walk the track so he can visualise the choices he will need to make on each jump and corner. It helps offset the disadvantage of being effectively blinkered in each crowded, fast-paced race.
Hunter competed on this course at AIMS in 2018, finishing ninth in the Year 7 boys’ competition, so no walk-through was required this year. He was kitted up, swinging back on his Chase RSP1 bike with its carbon fibre forks and clip pedals, fidgety and eager to hit the track. This was his sixth bike, a 40-tooth pro-XL, and it’d helped him claim numerous wins.
“I’m looking forward to making more friends and going hard as I can, trying to win.”
And then, Sarah Walker appeared in his field of vision.
“I’m here to see Hunter,” she said. “I really like your jersey. I’ve seen that one before.”
Effervescent, smiley, chatty Hunter was stunned silent.
Walker asked Hunter if he wanted to do some laps with her. He nodded vigorously, Walker suited up like Wonder Woman, and they lined up side-by-side.
“Ready?” Walker said. “I’ll follow you.”
They ended up doing three laps while the other 69 BMX competitors and their supporters looked on. They did wheelies on the tops of the jumps (official term: manuals), and Hunter cut Walker off twice on the corners.
“He’s pretty good eh!” Walker said. “He knows his race lines. I was thinking: Holy, that’s pretty quick.”
Fresh off the bike, Walker ran out with a broom to sweep water off the track. She had noticed a couple of puddles on her ride with Hunter and wanted to tidy up the course before the kids started racing.
A parent in the audience called out: “Look who’s sweeping, mate”.
The AIMS BMX event is called The Cam Waite Memorial Event, after a committed dad who died just ahead of last year’s AIMS Games. A trophy in his name will be presented this week to a BMX parent who goes the extra mile for their child and the sport.
At the opening of the event, all competitors lined up for a silent lap in Cam Waite’s memory. Girl riders, including Waite’s daughter Keira [who is a medal chance in the Year 8 girls’ competition] took the front row. Walker lined up with them, reaching over to touch Keira’s arm just before the start gate fell.
Walker gave Hunter another jersey for his collection; this time a New Zealand elite training jersey she’d worn at this year’s World Championships in Belgium, where she was eliminated in the quarter-finals.
Walker had to leave Tauranga to return to her own training commitments, but she said she’d watch the BMX action on the AIMS Games livestream.
Before she left, Walker told Hunter he was an inspiration to her and other riders.
“You face extra challenges and you give it everything.”
He looked up at her shyly.
“It was pretty awesome,” he said later, trying to absorb the morning’s events. “Big shock.”