US riders aim to make the jump in BMX at Rio Games
BMX seems like a sport added to the Summer Games with American audiences and athletes in mind. Yet, no American has won gold in BMX Olympic cycling's short history.
The United States was shut out entirely in 2012 after taking a silver and two bronze medals in BMX's debut in 2008.
A strong, deep field of U.S. riders would like to make the jump at the Rio de Janiero Games.
''It's a U.S.-born sport. We should be doing (well) ... we need to bring home medals,'' said Corben Sharrah, who is headed to Rio after winning the U.S. Olympic trials. Understand the pressure, but don't let it get to you.
''As an athlete, do your own thing, have fun and ride the bike,'' he added.
''BMX,'' which stands for ''bicycle motocross,'' was born around the early 1970s in Southern California. In the Olympics, cyclists compete on a course of primarily finely-groomed dirt that winds down a roughly quarter-mile track, strewn with jumps and sharp turns. Eight riders gather at the starting gate set up at the top of a steep ramp.
Olympian Alise Post, the top-ranked American in the women's world rankings, likened a BMX race to a cross between horse racing and a roller coaster ride . It's the kind of thrill-a-minute activity that should appeal to millennials.
''Everybody that's out there doing this has a very competitive, aggressive side,'' said the 25-year-old Post. Riding since she was 6, Post loves the adrenaline.
Other riders in other countries started getting the rush too. Olympic organizers added BMX to the Beijing Games as a way to attract younger viewers and participants.
At the elite level, BMX is the ''most competitive it's ever been,'' said 23-year-old Connor Fields. ''BMX is so good, it's insane.''
Fields, a strong medal contender, is going to his second Olympics after finishing seventh four years ago in London.
''Ever since it was announced it was put into the Olympics, the level of the sport has risen exponentially. All of a sudden, programs get created, money gets thrown at it,'' said Fields, referring to international growth.
In the United States, cycling in general has not been a top funding priority, regardless of the discipline . Money distributed by the U.S. Olympic Committee typically goes to gymnastics, swimming, and track and field - the sports that TV viewers typically watch in prime time.
Getting shut out in London in 2012 didn't help the BMX program. Some crashes for U.S. riders led to bad luck, said USA Cycling president Derek Bouchard-Hall. Four years earlier, the United States took the bronze in the women's race, and the silver and bronze in the men's race after finishing within 1 second of gold-medal winner Maris Strombergs from Latvia.
''I don't think, with just two Olympics to go by, you can say this is a trend,'' said Bouchard-Hall when asked if the rest of the world had passed the United States in BMX.
At the same time, many other countries are pouring resources into BMX because they view it as medal opportunities, Bouchard-Hall added.
On the men's side, Strombergs is going for his third straight gold at Rio. Mariana Pajon, who won the women's gold in 2012, is such a star in her home country of Colombia that a track was named in her honor.
''And while the sport was invented by us and we were the best for a while, the competition has come up,'' Bouchard-Hall said. ''And it's a sport where with a little tiny difference you go from first to fifth really quickly, and that's the game.''
So much can happen during a frantic race that nearly anyone who has qualified for one of the eight spots in a final has a chance to medal.
Fields and Post might be favorites, but the three other BMX bikers on Team USA, including Sharrah, are contenders as well.
Nic Long finished third at the world championships in May. On the women's side, Brooke Crain advanced to the finals in London, finishing eighth.
It's the best possible team that the United States could field. All except Sharrah competed in London, where Sharrah was an alternate.
''We make do, work our butts off,'' said Jamie Staff, USA Cycling's BMX director, who is trying to cultivate a positive attitude.
When Staff hears talk about the pressure on the United States to produce in BMX, he turns that into motivation.
''Some people look at it like that. I don't. I flip it over,'' Staff said. ''Compared to some nations, we are underfunded ... I see us as the underdogs, not the other teams.''
AP Sports Writer Dave Skretta contributed to this story.
AP Summer Games site: http://summergames.ap.org/