Alise Willoughby competes during the women's racing BMX semifinals at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 on July 30, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan.
When BMX racer Alise Willoughby started going to the bike track at age six, she was one of only a few girls dropping in.
“My brother started about two weeks before me,” the now 31-year-old said. “He saw a couple girls and it opened his eyes.” After he shared what he saw with their parents, he encouraged them to send his little sister along the next time.
“There was only a handful of girls, but that allowed me to get into the sport. That representation opened my eyes to it being an option.”
Throughout her 25-year career on the bike, Willoughby has continued to follow in women riders’ footsteps.
“Growing up, there was a female by the name of Kim Hayashi, who rode for the company that I eventually rode for professionally,” said the St. Cloud, Minnesota native. Like Willoughby, Hayashi, 36, got started in the sport after following her brother to the bike track.
“I always looked up to her,” Willoughby shared. “She excelled at everything she did. On the track, she took risks and was ahead of her era, and I was always inspired to be like that. I also respected that she was on a team — at the time, Redline Bicycles — that professionally supported her and gave females that opportunity.”
Until BMX racing was added to the Olympic program in 2008, “the pro women were what you aspired to,” she said. But at that time, it wasn’t feasible for cycling to be your full-time job.
Once the Olympics came into the picture — 11 years after she started — the game changed.
“It’s pretty cool to see how far it’s come,” said the three-time Olympian and 2016 silver medalist. That includes prize money. “It wasn’t equal at the start, but it is equal now,” Willoughby added.
BMX Freestyle cyclist Hannah Roberts hopes that trend continues with her discipline having made its debut at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020.
Roberts — the first American to qualify for the Games in BMX freestyle — originally was the only girl at the skate park when she first started cycling at nine years old.