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Olympic BMX medalists were reminded all too closely of the risk they ride with

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TOKYO – On the most important morning of his BMX racing career, Kye Whyte called his brother, another BMX rider who failed to qualify for the Olympics after missing significant time in 2018 and 2019 due to injury.

“I'm prepared to crash today,” Kye told Tre. “Nothing’s stopping me. I'm prepared to crash.”

“Chill, G,” his brother replied.

But Kye was insistent: “I don't care. I'm gonna go to war today and I’m prepared to crash.”

A few hours later, the warrior’s mentality paid off. Kye Whyte finished 0.114 seconds behind Dutch rider Niek Kimmann to take home the silver medal. He and his teammate, Bethany Shriever, who won gold in the women’s event shortly after, won the first BMX medals for Great Britain.

In BMX racing, a track that takes 40 seconds to complete, like the one at Ariake Urban Sports Park in Tokyo, is considered long. In less than a minute, your whole life can change. A girl from Essex like Shriever, who had to partially crowdfund her training while working part-time as a teaching assistant after UK Sport pulled funding for female riders (she’s back with the organization now), can become a national hero who attracts the admiration of Oasis. That's when it goes right.

Things can also go very, very wrong. Even the most skilled riders run the risk of demonstrating just how dangerous the sport is every time the starting gate drops. They have to know it. They also have to not think about it.

“It’s BMX, there’s a crash at every race,” Whyte said.

He’s not exaggerating, at least not by much.

Kye White (left) and his fellow Olympic BMX riders know risk comes with the job. (Photo by Danny Lawson/PA Images via Getty Images)
Kye White (left) and his fellow Olympic BMX riders know risk comes with the job. (Photo by Danny Lawson/PA Images via Getty Images)

On Friday, in the semifinals of the Olympics, the worst crash came for American Connor Fields, the reigning gold medalist and a favorite at the Games.

Entering the third heat of the semifinal, Fields was fourth overall. He seemed to be in second place as he landed hard off an early jump, slamming into the ground.

Medical personnel attended to him briefly on the track before lifting him onto a stretcher. He was taken in an ambulance to hospital. The most recent update is that he is "awake and awaiting further medical evaluation."

It happened in a second. In less than a second, really. Even in the replay, it’s almost impossible to see what happens. The riders look like alien centaurs galloping down the hill, helmets obscuring their fragile humanity. It feels like watching a video game until suddenly there’s a tangle of bodies and bikes on the ground and the crowd gasps so fast it’s like their breath knew it before their brains did.

The people who ended up on the podium know that very little separates them from that scene.

“It could be any of us crashing like he did,” bronze medalist Carlos Ramírez of Colombia said. “We know anything can happen.”

Fields wasn’t the only crash of the day. Australian Saya Sakakibara was also taken off the track on a stretcher after a wipeout that took down American medal hopeful Alise Willoughby.

Sakakibara was evaluated on the premises. She was dizzy and a concussion was suspected, but she could walk and stayed at the track, the whole back of the uniform sleeve shredded, exposing the bloodied skin beneath.

Willoughby was able to get up and finish her races. Afterwards, she said that despite thunderstorms that delayed the start of the day, the condition of the track wasn’t a factor.

"Obviously riding in the rain is never fun, but the track held up great and honestly right now is the best conditions we've had all week. So I don't think it's the weather, I just think it's putting eight of the world's best head-to-head and close racing," Willoughby said.

She knows the risks inherent in BMX all too well. Her husband and coach, Sam Willoughby, won a silver medal at the 2012 Olympics and competed alongside his then-fiancée in Rio. Just months later, he crashed during training and was left partially paralyzed. He’s stayed close to the sport, coaching his wife through a disappointing day from his wheelchair. And she hasn’t let it affect her approach. She knows she can’t.

“I don't think you can ride with any hesitation out there, that's when things go wrong,” she said. “You can trip and fall down walking on the street and have something bad happen, so it's a calculated risk. And it's unfortunate when it goes wrong."

The other athletes echo this sentiment. They’re not afraid because they love the sport, risks and all, but also because they can’t be.

“I think if you're scared, you might as well pack your bags early because you're not gonna ride properly,” Whyte said. “You're gonna be scared to crash.”

“Nobody's above a hard fall. That's one thing I think we all learn as competitors and we all respect and understand about the sport,” said American Corben Sharrah, who failed to make the finals. He said that some of the younger riders are naturally fearless, but if not, you have to train yourself to be that way. “You try not to think about any of the negative things that could happen.” 

Even if you’ve just watched your teammate taken out on a stretcher.

“It's scary, but you definitely try to just imagine it didn't happen and go up there and race your own race,” he said. “And pray after you get done with your race that everything's all right for him.”

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