LONDON — After winning half the medals in BMX at the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games, Team USA came to London ready to collect more hardware.
But it wasn’t meant to be. The two 19-year-olds who made the finals — Connor Fields and Brooke Crain — both had tough starts. Fields finished seventh. Crain, who didn’t know she would be competing in the 2012 Olympics until the night before the team left for London, tore her quadriceps muscle in the qualifying time trial on Wednesday and couldn’t push hard down the starting ramp. She ended up eighth.
Latvia’s Maris Strombergs defended his 2008 gold medal, while Mariana Pajon, the 2011 world champion, won Colombia’s second Olympic gold medal in the women’s race. Rounding out the men’s podium were Sam Willoughby (AUS) and Carlos Mario Oquendo Zabala (COL). Sarah Walker (NZL) and Laura Smulders (NED) took the remaining women’s medals.
“It was definitely a heartbreaker,” said Mike King, USA Cycling’s BMX director. “At the end of the day, this is what this sport is all about. It can be very rewarding, and it can be very humbling all within 45 seconds.”
“It wasn’t the race I wanted obviously, but I was just happy to be in the finals,” said Crain, who competed with the initials AMV on her black gloves.
AMV stands for Arielle Martin-Verhaaren, who was named to the 2012 U.S. Olympic Team after finishing fourth at the BMX world championships in late-May. But in a final practice before the Olympics on July 30, she crashed and sustained a severe laceration to her liver and a collapsed right lung. Crain was named to the U.S. Olympic team the next day and dedicated her race to Martin-Verhaaren.
Alise Post and David Herman also had tough days, failing to advance from the semis.
Fields had his own struggles in the semifinals. In the first race, first corner, the young American tumbled over Quentin Caleyron after the French rider crashed in front of him. The accident left Fields with battered hands and left knee.
“It’s the Olympics, everyone was riding over their heads, going for stuff they wouldn’t normally go for,” he said, showing the gaping rip in his pants. “He was just a little over-aggressive.”
Fields overcame the spill, won the next two semifinal races and felt good going into the finals. But he had a bad start, then was trapped behind one of the two Dutch riders in the final.
“That’s part of BMX,” he said. “It’s not like track and field or swimming where the fastest guy is going to win because they are the fastest guy. In BMX you not only have to be good, you have to be smart, and there’s a little bit of luck involved as well.”
BMX made its Olympic debut four years ago at the Beijing Games, and U.S. riders claimed three of the six available medals. Before 2008, the U.S. BMX program famously built a replica of the Beijing track at the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, California.
The American medal haul made other countries look at what the U.S. was doing, and if imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then USA Cycling’s BMX program should have blushed.
“After Beijing, I think everyone figured it out, and they could say they used our footprint, built a (track) replica, and created programs to generate development,” said King.
And if national federations didn’t build tracks, riders created their own; Fields said Strombergs built his own replica of the London track.
But despite the lack of Olympic medals won in London, Fields reminded everyone that the U.S. remains a dominant force in BMX, with seven men in the top 25 overall in the world. The American women have similar depth.
“We had five girls who could have been in that final right there,” said Crain.
“We’re the second ranked country in the world, so it’s not like we dropped off that much,” Fields added. “We just didn’t have a very good showing here this weekend.”
In a youth-driven sport, it was perhaps ironic that youth made a medal in these Olympics tough for the U.S. to earn.
“Experience,” said Fields, when asked what he will work on in the coming years. “That’s probably a big reason why I didn’t nail the start here was I don’t have as much experience racing at a high level as the rest of these guys. I only turned pro last year. This is my first competition like this at all.”
Fields confessed excitement prevented him from sleeping much this week, and he couldn’t eat this morning. After the final, he seemed stunned — a combination of disappointment in losing out on a medal while also excited to have just raced at the Olympics.
“They’re young and their whole world just came crashing down on them,” said King. “As long as they understand that the sun will come up tomorrow, they’ll come home with a great experience.”
And from this experience on the sport’s biggest stage, they’ll mature as athletes.
“That’s what I’m excited about,” said King. “We have a young team. These guys, they’re going to come back swinging really big.”
Fields agreed. “I’m coming for Strombergs’ title next time.”
Peggy Shinn is a freelance contributor for TeamUSA.org. This story was not subject to the approval of the United States Olympic Committee or any National Governing Bodies.