By Susan Valot
Excited riders waited on their BMX bicycles at the top of a YMCA track in Orange, Calif. Their front tires rested on a short, metal gate. They wore colorful helmets, long sleeves and long pants.
Kory Cook was one elite rider there. He barely missed going to the Olympic trials this year, partly because a crash last summer sent him flying through the air and into asphalt… on his shoulder. The 22-year-old said that a lot of people still don’t know what BMX racing is – something he hopes the Olympics will change.
“Whenever I tell anyone what I do, ‘Oh, freestyle? Oh, X Games?'” Cook said. “No, BMX racing, you know what I mean? We race around a dirt track, you know. It’s an organized, it’s a race. It’s not freestyle. It’s not…we’re not doing backflips.”
Long-time pro BMX trainer Mike Redman was the in-arena announcer for BMX at the 2008 Beijing Games. He said the sport has enjoyed much more exposure since he did it in the ‘70s.
“I was a sophomore in high school, and I had a coach come up to me and ask why I hadn’t showed up for baseball tryouts the day before.” Redman said. “And I told him that I was going to concentrate exclusively on BMX racing. And he put his finger in my chest and told me how BMX wasn’t a sport.”
Redman said he almost called that coach after the 2008 Games, the first year of BMX and the last for baseball in the Olympics. He said the 2008 Olympic exposure didn’t help much, because BMX only got a few minutes of TV coverage. He’s glad this year’s TV coverage will be more extensive and in primetime.
The BMX track at the Olympic Training Center near San Diego is an exact replica of the one racers will be using in London. It starts with a three-story drop, followed by monster hills and gnarly turns. U.S. National Coach James Herrera said it’s different from the track riders tackled four years ago.
“When they first rode the Beijing test event the year before the Olympics, everybody was petrified of that track,” Herrera said. “They couldn’t believe how technical it was. And now, you know, they’re looking at that track and that’s the easy one. So it’s certainly progressing. I definitely think there’s a little bit more room for progression. You know, people are just getting better on their bikes.”
Herrera said the size of the Olympic tracks also makes it more difficult for women to make it to the elite level because it takes a lot more strength to get over the jumps.
Brooke Crain is one of those women. She’s a 19-year-old who’s competing in her first Olympics, and she knows BMX injuries well.
“I’ve had five broken wrists,” Crain said. “I broke my nose twice. I’ve had a separated shoulder. I’ve had dislocated shoulders. Fractured heel. Yeah. A lot of stuff.”
Crain initially missed out on an Olympic spot, largely because of a crash. But right before the Summer Games, a rider who made the three-man, two-woman U.S. team went down during a training run on the California track. Coaches bumped up Crain to go to London. She said it’s all worth it, despite the injuries.
“Because I love it,” Crain said. “I mean, anything, if you love a sport so much, it doesn’t really matter you know. An injury just shows you were working hard.”