The reigning BMX world champion, Colombia’s Mariana Pajón will arrive at Rio 2016 with designs on retaining the Olympic title she won in such spectacular fashion four years ago in London.
Born on 10 October 1991 in Medellin, Pajón long nurtured hopes of competing in the Olympics, though not always in the sport in which she has made her name.
“In 2000, when I was nine, I used to do gymnastics, not BMX, and I thought that I’d go to the Games as a gymnast,” she explained. “I dreamed about moments like that. I felt so proud and I really wanted to go to the Olympic Games.”
Pajón first sat on a bike at the age of four and soon began to devote her energies to BMX, prompted by her father and brother, both of whom competed in the discipline, which is derived from motocross racing. It was not long before she began to win competition after competition.
After turning 16, she won a world title every year, both on the Olympic 20” wheel bike and the cruiser, with its 24” wheels. The U-16 world crown came her way in 2007, followed by the junior cruiser title in 2008, the 20” junior in 2009, the senior cruiser in 2010 and the senior 20” in 2011.
In 2011 the Colombian rider moved to the top of the world rankings, courtesy of victories at the World Championships in Copenhagen (DEN), the Pan American Games, and the Latin American, South American, Central American and national championships, a clean sweep that led to her being named sportswoman of the year in her home country.
In appearing at London 2012, Pajón had the honour of carrying the Colombian flag at the Opening Ceremony, an occasion she looks back on with great affection: “I felt so honoured to be competing in a non-mainstream sport, a sport that wasn’t well known in Colombia, and to represent my country at the Olympic Games. It was a major responsibility to carry the flag at the Opening Ceremony, and it showed the people of Colombia that there are other sports they can be proud of.
“At the same time, it was a challenge I was anxious to meet. I tried to make sure that every single second of the parade, with the flag in my hands, stayed with me. It was a very profound experience for me, from the moment I walked into the stadium to the end of the Opening Ceremony.”
An unreal experience
When the BMX competition came around, Pajón showed she was ready for the challenge by going third-fastest in the seeding run at the Lee Valley Velopark, clocking a time of 38.787 seconds to finish just behind New Zealand’s Sarah Walker and Australia’s Caroline Buchanan.
“I felt full of confidence after that seeding run,” said the Colombian. “I posted a very good time and I felt I’d done a really good run on that track.”
Two days later, Pajón eased to victory in her semi-final, winning each of the three runs. Despite being drawn into Lane 4 in the eight-rider final, not her favoured starting position, she was determined to make the most of her opportunity.
“I said to myself that if I was going to win, then I could do it from any lane,” she recalled. “I was just going to go for it and do the thing I know best. I wanted to have as many memories as I could of my Games.”
She added: “I didn’t want the nerves I was feeling to stop me from making the most of the occasion, because I was on the way to achieving my dream. I wanted to remember everything too. I felt very calm, a lot calmer than usual, which wasn’t normal. I knew I’d prepared really well and that all I had to do now was give it my all.”
When the gate finally went down, Pajón jumped clear of the pack. “I knew my time had come. I made a great start, and when I realised I was in the lead and that I had a clear track ahead of me, I said to myself that I had to complete the lap without making a mistake. I knew on the second jump that no one could catch me. All I had to do was ride the way I know how.
Describing the moment when she made the gold hers, she said: “When I crossed the finish line, I couldn’t believe what I’d just done. The first thing I did was hug the president of the Colombian Cycling Federation. I asked him: ‘Is this for real? Is it a dream or is it really happening?’”
On a roll
“The emotion you feel is just impossible to explain,” Pajón continued. “There are so many things going though your head. You feel so proud at winning that medal for the country and making everyone back home so happy. Seeing my flag go up and hearing my national anthem in another country made me feel more Colombian than ever.”
An Olympic champion at the age of 20, Pajón has since been intent on keeping the good times rolling, and has continued to sweep virtually all before her in the lead-up to the Rio Games. A BMX World Cup winner in 2013 and 2015, she collected another world title in Rotterdam in 2014 and the world BMX time-trial crown the following year.
Then, in May this year, riding at the complex that bears her name (El Complejo Mariana Pajón) in her home city, she got the better of Buchanan and the USA’s Alise Post to win the UCI Elite World Championship title, a victory that allows her to go to Rio as the world champion, just as she did in 2012.
Her goal since pocketing Olympic gold in London is to go down in history by repeating the feat in Rio. As fierce and determined in the saddle as she has always been, Pajón has the means to go and do just that.