Editor’s Note: In 2013 I had a daughter taking lessons at the Olympic Training Center for BMX. At the time, Olympians trained there, including Alise Post — who I interviewed. On August 20th ESPN reported that Alise Post won a Silver Medal at the Rio Olympics. In honor of our South Bay Olympic Training stadium where she trained, I’m posting this article in full.
The information hut at the entrance is empty, the parking lot has plenty of open spaces and Australian Silver Medalist, Sam Willoughby, trains on the track. Open to the public at the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, BMX is one of the few sports where novice seven-year-olds can race just minutes after a professional athlete.
When I’m out on the track on a weekday afternoon, a father wanders over with his two sons. I’m the first person he spots and he asks me what’s here. I tell him that this BMX track has weekly races and clinics for both my child and even me. There’s a BMX Hall of Fame inside the Visitor’s Center and right now he can watch Sam Willoughby train. He thanks me for the information, turns his back and tells his boys to get in the car.
“When was the last time you played basketball with Kobe Bryant?” says Tyler Brown. “You can have the equivalent at this track, but even people living across the street have no idea we’re here.” Tyler is the manager of the Training Center’s BMX track and he’s also been a pro racer for the last ten years.
Raised in Colorado, Tyler was introduced to BMX at the age of twelve when he went over to a friend’s house, she opened the door and a dog bit him in the stomach. He received insurance money for the injury and his mother, Rhonda, said he and his brother could buy anything they wanted with the leftover money after paying the hospital bills. It was a difficult decision. He had to choose between go-carts or BMX bikes. Tyler chose the bikes.
The indoor track in Colorado had to be built up every Friday morning and then torn down on Sunday afternoon so the livestock center could use the space during the week. The first time Tyler went to the dirt track, he mostly watched. The second time, he got on his bike, raced and won first place.
As Tyler improved, his mother gave him a choice: he could continue racing locally and they could keep the house or Tyler could race nationally and they could sell everything they owned. Tyler chose the latter and Rhonda, a single mom, moved her boys into a motor home. They then traveled throughout the entire United States. To make ends meet, Tyler’s mother sold bike parts and worked at the national BMX events for the ABA (American Bicycle Association).
Rhonda still jokes with her son today that she went pro before Tyler did. Sponsors looking for women asked her to participate in several races. She agreed in order to help the women’s class gain popularity, but she was mostly focused on helping Tyler.
“My pro career, I give every bit as much credit to my mom. Without her supporting me financially, emotionally, mentally, there’s no way I’d be here,” Tyler says.
His dedication paid off. After racing nationally for a few years, he started competing worldwide. He traveled to South Africa, Australia and all over Europe. In 2005 he won the World Cup at Geneva, Switzerland, the top racing event held annually by the International Cycling Union (UCI). He then won the World Cup again in 2006 at Lyon, France.
Tyler was one of three BMX athletes who made the Olympic long team in 2008. But then, a month before the finals, he was warming up on the track in Chula Vista when he did a jump and his front tire washed out. The handle bar jabbed into his leg, tearing his quad muscle and causing a large hematoma. He was off his bike for three weeks and it took several months to get the quad muscle back to a level where he could race at top speed. He didn’t make it into the Olympic finals. At the 2012 Olympic trials, another injury kept him off the team as well.
“It wasn’t in the cards for me,” he says, turning silent and staring out onto the track.
The Olympic Training Center feels remote, surrounded by the Lower Otay Reservoir and mountains. Opened in June 1995, the immense 155-acre complex has dorms, a cafeteria, soccer fields, tennis courts, a 400-meter track, an aquatic complex, a field hockey surface and a permanent archery field.
Although racers may say that their sport is a small fish in a big sea of U.S. athletics, the Visitor’s Center pays exclusive homage to BMX at the Hall of Fame. Jerseys fill the walls alongside biographies of famous riders, including Stu Thomsen, the highest paid BMX racer in the mid-80’s, and Thom Lund, famous for his jumping skills on a fifty-pound Monoshock bike. Old bicycles are also on display, including Gary Ellis’ custom Kuwahara that featured in the movie ET and gave BMX a popularity boost in the 1970’s.
Tributes spill out into the hallway where plaques of BMX racers fill the walls and a glass case displays the ugliest helmet ever worn. Dubbed the “ice chest” or the “ping-pong ball”, in 1986 the helmet manufacturer Ecko created a Styrofoam inner core without the normal fiberglass outer shell. Eric Carter wore it at the ABA Grands when he won the No. 1 Amateur title. Thankfully, the descriptive placard says, the helmet never caught on.
Tyler notes that BMX still hasn’t truly caught on. You can’t just turn on ESPN and watch BMX races. He would like to open the sports section of any newspaper and read the results of the National Championships or the Supercross World Cup.
Interview with Alise Post
“A lot of people think it’s a sport for little kids,” Alise Post explains. She won 1st place in the USA Cycling BMX National Championships, 1st place in the UCI BMX Supercross World Cup in the Netherlands, placed as a U.S. Olympic team member—and that was just in 2012. Considered one of the best female BMX racers in the United States, Alise regularly trains on the Chula Vista track with her boyfriend, the 2012 Olympic Silver Medalist Sam Willoughby.
Originally from Minnesota, Alise started racing BMX at the age of six. Her brother, who was fourteen at the time, didn’t want a wimp for a sister, so he took her out to the track. At first she was too scared and refused to get on the bike, but once she got that first little crash out of the way, she was hooked. She raced locally and then started traveling the national circuit at the age of nine. She won many No. 1 Amateur titles and went pro at fifteen.
Alise never solely focused on BMX. She also did gymnastics as well as track and field in high school. She could have continued to play those sports at the college level, but with BMX she had a chance at the Olympics.
When Alise graduated from high school, she enrolled at the University of San Diego. She came here specifically because she knew the Olympic Training Center offered year round practice. After two semesters, she quit college in order to focus exclusively on BMX. Now, she has her sights set for gold at the 2016 Olympics.
Alise explains, “It’s not a sport where you have a coach and go on a Tuesday or Wednesday. You’re never required to go. That’s one of the great things and bad things. Anyone can do it because you can come and go as you please. But I think it’s also key that we get some coaching on these local tracks so people have a regimen to follow.”
Another problem with BMX is that it hasn’t been around since the ancient Greeks so the training methods are still evolving.
Invented sometime during the 1950’s in Europe, the sport probably came to Southern California in 1969 when boys in Los Angeles riding their Schwinn Stingray bicycles raced in Palms Park. The next year, fourteen-year-old Scot Breithaupt from Long Beach created the first proto-sanctioning body called the Bicycle United Motocross Society. Ten years later, Kevin McNeal pushed technique and training by utilizing the new videotape technology to improve his racing. First, he would have somebody tape him during every moto. Right after, he would watch the video in slow motion to pick up on his mistakes. Then, he would correct those mistakes for the next round.
Over the decades, BMX has changed from kids doing tricks in empty swimming pools to a cut throat racing competition. Pro athletes get regular drug tests and must stick to an intense daily schedule. Alise has a coach and trains seven days a week, not only on the track, but in the gym. Going to the beach on a whim isn’t possible because the sun might drain her. A night on the town can mean loosing a whole week’s worth of training, so she doesn’t do it. Instead, after her athletic training day is done, she puts out resumes to find sponsors.
According to BMXers, the biggest reason why the sport hasn’t gone mainstream is because their best athletes need to land bigger sponsors who give them the same coverage as Tiger Woods or Tom Brady. Sponsorship is so important to BMX athletes that a Hall of Famer like Cheri Elliott—who during the 1980’s won fourteen major national and world titles—co-authored the handbook “The Athlete’s Guide to Sponsorship.” While during that same decade, the cereal maker Wheaties became an official sponsor of the ABA national circuit and starred Steve Veltman on the front of the box, BMX’ers today search for these marquee sponsors.
Meanwhile, BMX training is so rigorous that once racers finish their careers, they tend to move on to excellent jobs because they have a strong work ethic. They are MIT graduates, Ph.D.’s and hold impressive corporate jobs. At the age of 27, Tyler is nearing the end of his pro career. He was recently offered the position as a rider and team manager for GT bicycles. He hopes to transition into a full-time team manager for GT where he can continue to promote the sport.
Tyler says, “At a professional level, I would put our training up against any other Olympian here, any NFL player, NBA player, anybody because you have to eat, sleep and train like any other full-time athlete.” The best BMX racers can ride at speeds of up to 40 mph in two seconds at the bottom of the start.
And yet, on a regular practice day, my seven-year-old novice balances at the gate next to Olympian Nick Long. Just before a Saturday afternoon race, Brooke Crain rips through the track minutes before my daughter competes; Brooke came in 8th at the London Olympics. My daughter and I together ask if we can take her picture. She agrees with an air of casual kindness. When she leaves the track, no other spectators ask for pictures or autographs.
That’s unlikely to last much longer. The track has only been in Chula Vista since 2007, one year before BMX became an Olympic sport for the first time. As the Olympics gives the sport increasing publicity, the Training Center will start to see larger crowds. Coming this September, they will host the UCI World Cup and top BMX athletes from all over the world will come here to compete. As the sport gains more exposure, the days when kids can race beside the pros will likely go away. But for now, out here in Chula Vista, we’ve got it all to ourselves.