Perris Benegas competes in BMX in Chengdu, Sichuan.
With all the incredible flips, twists, turns and rides up steep ramps, freestyle BMX can obviously lead to crashes. Perris Benegas suffered one earlier this year in May during the FISE World Series competition in Montpellier, France, where she damaged a disc in her back.
“They had to help me walk off the course,” she said. “I couldn’t even stand up straight. They immediately pulled me from the contest. I wanted to ride so bad, so I laid down and put ice on it and then tried to get up to walk. And they were like, ‘Nope, you can’t do it.’”
Benegas has done a lot of rehab since that injury and has recovered well. So well, in fact, that she just won the gold medal in BMX freestyle park at the UCI Urban Cycling World Championships last month in Chengdu, China, with two other American women, Angie Marino and Hannah Roberts, taking second and third.
“It was really crazy,” Benegas said of the event. “The fact that USA swept the podium was unreal, unheard of.”
And in addition to taking first place in that “unreal” podium sweep, the win sharpens Benegas’ focus on the next goal, which is to compete at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 — which will be the first time BMX freestyle park is held as an Olympic event.
“It’s incredible just knowing that our sport is recognized at that level and giving people the opportunity to compete there. It’s just an amazing opportunity for people in our sport,” Benegas said. “… I think for people that want to go to that level, it gives them a great opportunity to chase a dream that so many people have. Everyone wants to say I want to be like an Olympian. How cool would that be? And now we have an opportunity to do that.”
The extreme discipline of BMX freestyle got its start in the 1970s with kids riding bikes up skateboard ramps and in empty swimming pools. It grew from there, and after more than four decades, it was added to the Olympic program in a 2017 vote.
Differing from its counterpart, BMX racing, which has been an Olympic event since 2008, freestyle park features amazing tricks and jumps on and above ramps and obstacles, with riders sometimes flipping themselves over, kicking their legs out, raising their arms way above the handlebars and also spinning their bikes 180 to 360 degrees or even more.
Benegas, 23, got her start in freestyle biking while growing up in Reno, Nevada, thanks to her older brother, Tyler, who did it with friends. She was the only girl among them, but that didn’t stop her one bit from doing what Tyler and the other boys did.
“I guess I just followed in his footsteps,” she said. “Because he went from racing to freestyle, I jumped straight into freestyle and that’s what I learned first. So I went to the skate park with them and they just taught me from there.”
As much of the physical demands freestyle has, Benegas says the mental side may be even more important.
“I never realized how mental riding was,” she said. “As a kid, I would just go to a skate park and ride and learn the tricks and it was so cool. But now it’s a contest. There are certain tricks that you want to learn. I’m learning that a lot of it is mental. … Just being able to walk yourself in (to a competition) mentally and believing in yourself and visualizing.”
She says most of her top freestyle contests are held overseas — in addition to China, there were competitions in France, Japan, Australia and Mexico this year — which can add some jetlag issues, but Benegas loves it.
“That’s definitely one of my favorite parts of it,” she said. “Literally, since a kid I told myself, I just wanted to travel the word and ride my bike and that’s what I’m doing now. It’s really just a dream come true.”
Beyond the Tokyo Games in 2020, perhaps Benegas could also go on to compete in the 2024 Olympics in Paris, which has the same name as her, just a different spelling. She also would be 29 by then.
How long will Benegas continue in the sport?
“Until my body won’t let me,” she said. “Even then I will still find a bike to ride, whether it’s road biking or mountain biking."
However long she does it, she likely will continue as one of the best. As Benegas posted recently on her Facebook page with an incredible photo of her soaring high over a ramp with arms raised: “Believe in yourself. Even when the world is spinning around you.”
Jim Caple is a former longtime writer for ESPN and the St. Paul Pioneer Press based in Seattle. He has covered sports on six continents, including 12 Olympics and 20 World Series. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.