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At 18 Hannah Roberts Is Preparing To Bring BMX Freestyle Into The Olympics With A Bang

By Karen Price | July 28, 2020, 9 a.m. (ET)

Hannah Roberts poses for a portrait during the Team USA Tokyo 2020 Olympics shoot on Nov. 19, 2019 in West Hollywood, Calif.

 

Each Tuesday leading up to the Olympic and Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020, which will be held in the summer of 2021, TeamUSA.org will introduce you to an athlete you should know prior to Tokyo – as part of the “Tokyo Tuesday” series. There’s a lot to learn on your quest to becoming the ultimate fan. Follow along on social media with the hashtag #TokyoTuesday.

 

At 18 years old, Hannah Roberts has already won two BMX freestyle world titles and is a favorite to win gold next year when the sport debuts at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2021.

The idea of kids looking up to her the way she looks up to guys like Nick Bruce and Logan Martin, however, is still a little “mind-blowing,” she said.

“It’s weird to think about that because I’m still pretty young and obviously I look up to other riders,” said Roberts, who also won a gold medal at the 2019 Pan American Games. “I do get parents that will message me and say, ‘My kid watches your videos, ’and they’ll thank me for being a positive role model and that’s, like, that’s really cool. It’s definitely nice, it’s just a little weird to get used to.”

Weird or not, Roberts is grateful for the opportunity she’ll have to help grow BMX freestyle and bring more people — especially girls and companies that might be willing to support them — into the sport. Because of COVID-19 that opportunity is on hold for another year, but the Buchanan, Michigan, native has used the unplanned breather from contests and traveling to relax a little, have fun and learn a whole bunch of new tricks in her home-away-from-home in North Carolina.

TeamUSA.org caught up with Roberts, who was enjoying the company of her new puppy, Koda, to talk about what she’s been up to while the sports world has largely been put on hold.

When the pandemic first hit in the U.S. and everything began shutting down, the Olympics hadn’t yet been postponed. A group of Olympic-bound and hopeful riders including Roberts, 2018 world champion Perris Benegas of Reno, Nevada, and Nikita Ducarroz, who is Swiss-American and competes for Switzerland, decided to quarantine together so they could keep training at the Daniel Dhers Action Sports Complex in Holly Springs, North Carolina.

“We said no grocery stories, no going into the gas station if you have to go get gas, if you’re out in public you had to wear a face mask, everything was delivered and we had to wipe down everything that came in,” Roberts said. “There were a lot of ground rules to make sure we stayed safe.”

As the pandemic wore on and the Games were ultimately postponed until next summer, being together not only helped keep everyone motivated and having fun but it also helped the women deal with the range of emotions. The group started to occasionally take some days off here and there and would spend time at one another’s apartments and just doing different things to keep their minds occupied.

“We talked it out a lot,” Roberts said. “If someone got too worked up at a session we’d go home and sit and chat about it and make sure they were OK.”

Typically in the summer Roberts is focused on dialing in her existing tricks so she can perform them consistently throughout the competition season. Now with no contests to prepare for, Roberts has already added five or six new tricks to her repertoire.

What she’s working on now will very likely be among the tricks that wow the crowds and judges alike in Tokyo next year.

While BMX racing has been an Olympic sport since 2008, Roberts’ sport, BMX freestyle, is all about tricks. Athletes are judged based on their ability to perform tricks over a 60-second run, which in the Olympic format will take place in a park setting with spines, walls, box jumps and other obstacles.

Roberts has been thriving in the sport for years already.

She won her first world title in 2017, and in winning her second two years later she became the first woman to land a trick called a 360 tailwhip. Roberts finished third at worlds in 2018.

One of her most recent videos posted to Instagram shows her landing a flair whip, a trick that involves her riding up the ramp and launching into the air, doing a backflip, separating from the bike except for her hands and whipping it around before pulling it back in to land and ride away.

It’s one she’d been working on for a while, and it’s even harder than it sounds.

It’s obviously a very male-dominated sport, but just getting more exposure I think will help get more girls into it and get more support from companies.

The video is actually a compilation of several failed attempts — including one where she loses her grip on the bike and sends it flying away from her in mid-air before she drops to the ramp — as she gets closer and closer and then finally lands it.

Robert gives no illusions that this sport she’s devoted her life to is easy.

“I spent about two hours trying to land it that day,” said Roberts, who followed her cousin Brett “Mad Dog” Banasiewicz into the sport around age 9, and then followed him in becoming one of the country’s top riders.

“I was going to post just the video of me landing it, but it’s way better to let people see that it took a minute and you have to work for it. I like showing that you don’t really get through a session without falling at least once or twice. Everyone should see that side of the sport. You might as well show it so people will see you putting in the work and know it doesn’t just come easy for you.”

It definitely doesn’t come easy when you’re a woman, at least in terms of making a living. Women don’t get the same support as men in terms of sponsorship, Roberts said, nor do they get the same prize money as men in many cases. That makes it hard to be able to train full-time and afford to travel and compete.

Although there are more and more women joining the ranks of the elite — a major contest back in 2016 drew just six women, Roberts said, compared to one recently in France that had 40 — Roberts hopes that the exposure of the Olympics will help bring more dollars to the women training and working hard every day to become the best in the world.

“Not a lot of people know that a lot of girls compete or can do the tricks that we can do,” she said. “It’s obviously a very male-dominated sport, but just getting more exposure I think will help get more girls into it and get more support from companies. That’s what I’m most excited for is riding my best and showing people that there are girls who do this.”

As much as Roberts hopes to inspire more girls to join the sport, she isn’t interested in being known as the best girl rider, she said. She just wants to be the best rider she can be, and if she can help others do the same it’s even better.

“When kids are at the park and I’m able to help them or they ask me for advice and I’m able to help them that means the world because not only do I want them to progress but I want them to have a positive experience at the park,” Roberts said. “I want them to come back and keep riding.”

Karen Price

Karen Price is a reporter from Pittsburgh who has covered Olympic and Paralympic sports for various publications. She is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.

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Hannah Roberts