The women’s BMX freestyle medal winners stood atop the podium at Tokyo 2020, each with an incredible back story behind their successes – managing crippling anxiety, recovering from a debilitating back injury and taking an all-or-nothing financial decision. Each clutched the reward for their endeavours – an Olympic medal.
Charlotte Worthington came out on top, winning gold ahead of the favourite, the USA’s BMX superstar Hannah Roberts. The Brit had blown away the watching competitors by attempting a 360 backflip trick on her first run of two, the first-ever by a woman in competition. So secret was the trick attempt, Worthington and her coach referred to it as ‘the Ferrari’ in order to throw other competitors off the scent of what Worthington was planning. The first attempt didn’t pay off, though, with Worthington clipping the wheel on the ramp lip and tumbling to the hard surface.
The 25-year-old knew she’d have to pull out all the stops to beat 20-year-old Roberts, who had already put down a seemingly unbeatable first run, scoring 96.1. Roberts, and all around her, knew it was nigh on unbeatable and the emotions spilled from the American even with another run from all riders to come.
On the second run, however, Worthington landed the big trick becoming the first woman to ever land a 360 in competition, and went on to complete a high-scoring run, whooping and hollering in delight and heading into the outstretched arms of her teammates, all jumping up and down in excitement. After waiting what seemed an interminable amount of time for the score to come up, shrieking in amazement when it did appear, Worthington had scored a massive 97.50. It was now Roberts who had it all to do in the final run to win the Olympic gold but, it was not to be as she came off her bike early in the run. The gold went to the Brit, silver to Roberts, and Switzerland’s Nikita Ducarroz, won bronze scoring 89.20.
But each medal meant so much to each athlete due to what they’d each been through to get to this point
When she was a teenager, Nikita Ducarroz’s anxiety became so crippling she couldn’t leave the house. “I wouldn't go out anywhere. I wouldn’t go to school. I was just terrified to leave,” the Swiss-American rider explained on her website. When her mother told her she had to play a sport, Ducarroz found that BMX was the perfect option because she could do it on her own time and not even leave the house, she could cycle on the driveway.
“It helped me not only get better at riding but eventually got me out of the house again and improved my overall life as well.”
The now 25-year-old is open about the relapses she still suffers, finding support in sharing her challenges with others, understanding that if it helps her to be vocal, then the likelihood is it could help others, too.
Ducarroz even related an incident on social media just months before she took part in the first-ever BMX freestyle event at an Olympic Games, when she had her worst ever episode.
With work and patience and the support network of those around her, including her mother who flew in to be with her daughter for five weeks, Ducarroz managed to get back to her normal life “and function like a proper human again”.
Ducarroz is at pains to point out that as much as it looks like she’s living the dream winning an Olympic medal, it’s important her followers know the reality of what goes on behind the scenes. To this end she has co-created an Instagram project Mindtricks, with her friend Patrick Kelly, to fix the lack of conversation around mental health in the action sports world. Through posts and personal stories they hope to reach those in need and inspire more to speak out and reduce the stigma.
A tattoo on her arm says ‘always a lesson’, a reminder to her how best to live a healthy life.
“I kind of take that overall, as a reminder of regardless of what happens, good or bad whatever I'm doing there's a lesson in it. There's something I can take away from it.”
When Hannah Roberts was 10 years old she wasn’t playing outside in the summer holidays like the other kids, she was holed up in hospital after a BMX park accident in which she fractured two vertebra that then required surgery plus wearing a back brace for six months.
Roberts was shaken up by the accident but on receiving support from her cousin, inspirational BMXer Brett “Mad Dog” Banasiewicz and his fellow pros – Roberts’ heroes – Roberts' enthusiasm returned.
When Banasiewicz had an accident himself that caused a traumatic brain injury, which meant he couldn’t ride again, his words of encouragement to keep going through her own injury stuck with Roberts.
At her first competition after her back injury, Roberts won the beginner park class, beating a field of boys her age. Roberts BMX journey was back on track and no doubt she, and her cousin, will be pleased she carried on now she has an Olympic silver medal in her pocket.
Five years ago Worthington was working full-time as a chef, doing BMX freestyle in her spare time but when her sport was added to the Olympic programme she had a decision to make. Should she keep with the relative security of her current career or go all in and try to make the most of the opportunity to make it as one of the first athletes to debut her sport at an Olympic Games? Worthington opted for the chance of a lifetime and packed in her job.
The gamble paid off – by 2018 Worthington was one of six riders picked for the Great Britain Cycling Team’s world class programme for BMX Freestyle Park riders. She was on her way but Worthington had to subdue thoughts of where she had been just a few years before when competing at Tokyo 2020. If she'd thought too much about her journey, she exclusively told Tokyo 2020 after the Games, her and her team would have been too emotional.
“I think we had those moments and those thoughts and maybe the two weeks before we got on the plane, I think we had to reminisce and let it all go... because you need to really be focused on the game... We had to let that all out before we won. I think otherwise being a bit too emotional, it can be really distracting." And honestly, if you're going to be the first woman to ever perform a 360 backflip, you really don't want your mind to be cooking up any distractions.