Willoughby, 30, started racing BMX at 6 years old and is one of the most successful females to race. In 2012, she came in 12th place at her first Games. Four years later she rode away with a silver medal.
Tokyo will mark her third Olympics, but for her, it’s about more than the medal.
“The journey is all about what we’re doing — here and now — in the preparation,” the Saint Cloud, Minnesota native said over Zoom. “I know that I’m in better form than I’ve ever been.”
The defending world champion credits that to not having to travel and compete to make the team. Because the team selection was based on points, and “since the period of qualifying lasted for multiple years,” Willougby said, “four of us were pretty set with our results going in. That resulted in a healthy environment for all of us to prepare for this Olympics and focus on the job at hand.”
The defending gold medalist who placed seventh in London before topping the podium in Rio thought he had seen it all in his 11 years of professional riding. But then 2020 happened.
“Going into the Olympics last year I was thinking I’ve been professional for 11 years. I’ve been to a couple of Olympics. I’ve had it go well. I’ve had it not go well. I’ve got so much experience there’s nothing you can throw at me that I haven’t seen,” he thought. “And then there was a global pandemic and the first-ever postponement in the history of the Olympics.”
But that’s a part of being a successful elite athlete the 28-year-old said from his house in Las Vegas, “Dealing with whatever gets thrown at you.”
After the series stop in Italy — which Fields opted to skip — he knew mathematically that he had clinched his spot.
This Olympic cycle he said, “It was nice to prepare for the Games specifically, as opposed to a qualification event.” In 2012 his focus was coming back from an injury and in 2016 he put all his energy into trials.
Sharrah, 29, of Tucson, Arizona competed alongside Fields at the Olympic Games Rio 2016 but just missed the finals — coming in ninth overall. That same year he won the overall world cup title and took gold at the world championships in 2017.
Now about to compete at his second Games, Sharrah said the time off was a nice break for his mind and his body.
“A lot of us [riders], honestly, don’t race healthy. We’re probably racing at 85 to 90-ish percent — sometimes less than that,” he said on the Zoom call.
He also used the break to spend more time with his son, Graysen, who turns 3 in July.
“We took off to a few places I hadn’t seen around Arizona,” he said. “It was like, I live here, why don’t you go see it? It’s been great to do that as a family and watch my son grow.”
Growing up with a professional BMX racer as a father, Stancil was on a bike by four. By six, she had won her first national title and world title at nine. By the end of 2019, she finished second in the world cup series ranking and earned the titles of USA Cycling Elite National Champion and Pro of the year.
Now having landed on her first Olympic team, Stancil, 26, left her hometown of Lake Villa, Illinois to do what she called her “final prep” at the Elite Athlete Training Center in Chula Vista, California.
“Payton and I are both from different areas than the other three athletes — not on the west coast.” Because of that, she said, and not having access to close supercross hills, the two teammates had a similar plan to head west before Tokyo to get some time on the track to “ride with other girls going to the Games.”
Two days after turning 19, the Pottstown, Pennsylvania native claimed the last spot on the BMX team with her second-place finish at the UCI World Cup in Bogota, Colombia. As the team was decided based on a points system, her four Tokyo teammates were able to secure their seats without having to compete at a qualifier. Ridenour however had to travel to Colombia and Italy to earn the title of first-time Olympian.
During a Zoom call afterward, the defending UCI Pump Track World Champion said she didn’t think she’d “ever not be stoked” about the opportunity to go to Tokyo.
Having raced her first junior year in 2019 the pro said, “the transition from junior to elite has been a little tough because the level of racing is off the charts,” but until she’s on that plane to Japan, she will continue to “try to learn the ropes a little bit more.”