This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2017, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
When he's suited up for a bike race, Waku Kunitate looks as serious as they come.
Tight red pants with yellow, molded plastic knee pads, black gloves, a white shirt that bears the flag from his home country of Japan and a steely, determined glare.
Sounds about right for a two-time world champion.
Except he's only 5 years-old.
Waku traveled with his parents from Nagoya, just south of Tokyo, to be in Salt Lake City Saturday in hopes of adding another trophy to his collection.
"I want to win," he said, in near perfect English that his father, Kazuchika Kunitate, said the youngster is learning at school.
Waku was among the nearly 400 kids from 13 countries including Australia, Aruba, China, Ecuador, Russia, Thailand, the U.S. and Japan participating in the 2017 Strider Cup World Championship, which lets kids between ages 2 and 5, try their hand at racing.
The racers are grouped by age and each heat includes two runs, which Saturday looped around downtown's Gallivan Plaza and includes an event for kids with special needs.
The Salt Lake City championship capped a four-event race series that began in May with stops in Fort Worth, Texas, Lincoln, Neb., and Pittsburgh.
It was sponsored by Rapid City, S.D.-based Strider Bikes, which makes no-pedal balance bikes for kids as young as 18 months. The foot-propulsion design teaches the fundamentals of riding, like balance and steering, and makes transitioning to pedal biking easier, CEO and founder Ryan McFarland said.
The idea of the bike was born in McFarland's garage as he was trying to help his 2-year-old son learn to ride tricycles and bicycles with training wheels.
"They were too heavy and too big," McFarland. "I started stripping his bike and fitting it to him, and when I got it down to size, he just took off."
That was roughly 11 years and 1.7 million bikes ago. Striders now sells bikes in 70 countries.
On race days, the competitors run the gamut in skill, speed and determination, he said. Some kids are "super focused and crazy fast," while others meander along, even stopping to wave over a hovering parent to get a drink from a child's cup mid-race.
"For some of these little kids, it's not a race for the win, it's a race just to have the courage to get to the starting line," McFarland said. "We try to encourage them all."
Like Waku, racer Pasha Ali of the Dallas-area, also came to Salt Lake City hoping for a podium finish, her father, Nur Ali, said.
Pasha, 3, got his first bike about a year ago and entered his first race in Forth Worth in May, earning a third-place finish. At Pittsburgh, Pasha finished fourth and was clearly disappointed
"You could see it on his face," said Ali, who has been driving race cars for 20 years.
After some coaching from dad, Pasha bounced back, finishing first in the Nebraska race.
"I knew he was going to be fast, but I didn't know he was going to be focused like me," the 44-year-old Pakistani-American Ali said.
Ali said he hopes the early racing experience will help his son develop a penchant for a healthy lifestyle and learn the value of good sportsmanship. And he doesn't think his son is too young for competitive sports, although he said his wife often asks if this is too much, too soon.
"It's a competitive world out there," said Ali, who is already thinking about a bike for the couple's second son, born three months ago. "So whether it comes to sports or education, if I can give him an upper hand, I'm going to."
Waku's father also said racing has helped his son build confidence and tenacity.
"He will never give up," Kunitate said with the help of an interpreter from a Japanese media outlet.
Waku's first race was at age 2. Then, he was riding only for fun and he finished well behind the winners. But that quickly changed, with Waku logging back-to-back championships at ages 3 and 4, his father said.
"Now he would like to win at 5," Kunitate said.
And he did.