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BMX racing world championships hit South Carolina with Olympic berths on the line

The almost nomadic nature of high-level BMX racing means that American riders such as Alise Willoughby, the two-time world champion and a former Olympic silver medalist, rarely get to compete in front of friends and family.

16 May 2024
16 May 2024

The almost nomadic nature of high-level BMX racing means that American riders such as Alise Willoughby, the two-time world champion and a former Olympic silver medalist, rarely get to compete in front of friends and family.

Last year’s World Cup schedule took riders to Turkey, the Netherlands, France and Argentina.

But in an almost serendipitous bit of scheduling fortune, Willoughby and her American teammates have the opportunity to ride not once but twice on home soil this year. They competed in a World Cup in Tulsa, Oklahoma, a few weeks ago, and this weekend they are in Rock Hill, South Carolina, for the world championships.

"Just an awesome, awesome opportunity," said Willoughby, who is hoping to compete in her fourth Summer Olympics later this year. "It’s a different pressure, different sort of thing. You’re not used to having all the family and friends, and like, it’s almost like I have to focus on my job. But it’s really good to be able to have more people able to watch."

The world championships are usually the biggest event on the BMX racing calendar, but this year they also should provide a preview of the Paris Games. For the American riders, spots on the Olympic team are on the line: Any eligible athlete finishing in the top three this weekend are automatically nominated for the squad.

The racing starts Friday, when the fields are pared down with early runs. The quarterfinals, semifinals and finals are Saturday.

"Here’s an interesting way to put it, I guess: I think I would rather, in my career, have an (Olympic) silver medal and world championships titles than not have any world championship titles and have a gold medal," said Willoughby, won the 2017 and 2019 world titles. "Obviously the Olympics are what everybody sees - the pinnacle of the sport - but also within our sport, the world championships is our annual thing. It’s the biggest thing I’d ever seen until, obviously, I made the Olympics."

Willoughby’s spot on the U.S. team for Paris is hardly secure. She will be pushed for one of the expected three slots for the Americans by Felicia Stancil, Payton Ridenour and Daleny Vaughn.

Cameron Wood, Jeremy Smith and Corben Sharrah are among the men expected to compete in South Carolina.

The Americans will face some heavy international competition in front of their home crowd, too.

Romain Mahieu led a French sweep of the podium a year ago and is back to defend his title, along with silver medalist Arthur Pilard and bronze medalist Joris Daudet - a two-time world champ in his own right. Niek Kimmann of the Netherlands, who won the World Cup race in Tulsa, is in the field along with Izaak Kennedy of Australia and Cédric Butti of Switzerland.

Willoughby will be pushed by British standout Bethany Shriever, the reigning world champ, along with Laura Smulders of the Netherlands, who finished second a year ago. The rider with the most momentum could be Saya Sakakibara, the Australian rider who won the World Cup race in Tulsa, and who has some Olympic improvement on her mind.

Sakakibara was left with lingering concussion issues after crashing at the pandemic-delayed Tokyo Games in 2021.

Then there is Willoughby, who remains among the world’s best despite becoming the elder stateswoman on the world BMX scene. The 33-year-old from St. Cloud, Minnesota, may value her world titles every bit as much as an Olympic medal - she won silver in Rio in 2016 - but she also admits she has some unfinished business when it comes to the Summer Games.

She barely missed making the Olympic team in 2008 because of age limits. Four years later in London, Willoughby was on a hot streak before crashing out of the semifinals. Three years ago in Tokyo, when she was favored to win, Willoughby had her hopes dashed by two more crashes in the semifinal round that kept her from the finals.

"I’m feeling confident going into Rock Hill. I feel really good," Willoughby said. "Things are coming together at the right time. I think I’ve been kind of building over the past couple of years, and it’s nice - like I said - to be kind of in the comfort of your own country, and doing your own thing. … It’s just a challenge of rising to my own potential."


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