South Bend teen rises to top in BMX, Olympics in sight

BMX Freestyle Roberts Rise Cycling_1530887482973

This April 2018 photo provided by USA Cycling shows Hannah Roberts waiting to compete at the UCI Freestyle BMX World Cup in Hiroshima, Japan. The 16-year-old Roberts, already one of the best BMX freestyle riders in the world, is helping blaze a trail for women in the Olympics. “Girls don’t have as much support as […]

Hannah Roberts first climbed on a BMX bike as a child to try to follow in her cousin’s tracks.

She has made a name for herself with her own high-flying tricks.

The next potential star for USA Cycling in the Summer Games is getting ready for her senior year of high school. The 16-year-old Roberts, already one of the best BMX freestyle riders in the world, is helping blaze a trail for women in the Olympics.

“Girls don’t have as much support as the guys have had. Nobody has really taken this side of the sport as seriously, (saying) ‘Oh, they’re just girls,'” Roberts said.

Organizers around the world are paying attention now, especially after the Olympics added freestyle as a medal sport for the Tokyo Games in 2020. A staple of the Summer X Games, BMX freestyle joins the Olympic roster as part of an effort to give the Games a more youthful and urban appeal .

It should also give the United States a chance to grab more medals. Like BMX racing, which has been in the Olympics since 2008, freestyle traces its roots to Southern California in the 1970s.

“The near future is really bright for our team in terms of … the number of athletes in the top 10 or 12 in the world and there are a lot of American flags there. We feel like we invented the sport right here in the United States,” said Scott Schnitzspahn, USA Cycling’s vice president of elite athletics.

“Right now as we go into Tokyo, we’re really excited about our chances as a team. These athletes are going to be front and center at the Olympics at one of the few new disciplines,” he said.

A rich BMX history hasn’t always translated into success at the Olympics. The United States broke through for gold in BMX racing when Connor Fields won the men’s race two summers ago at the Rio Games. Alise Willoughby took silver in the women’s race to make for a banner BMX showing for the Americans after being shut out in London in 2012.

Fields and Willoughby are expected to be top contenders again in Tokyo, while American riders also dominate the UCI world rankings on the freestyle side, a good sign for 2020.

Roberts was the 2017 UCI BMX Freestyle Park world champion. Perhaps just as impressively, she is a National Honor Society student back home in Buchanan, Michigan.

“During the school year it’s a little rough traveling, but I take all my books. It makes my bag really heavy,” Roberts said. Teachers email her notes, and she tries to get all her homework done while on the road during practice days.

Roberts started riding about eight years ago, while her cousin, Brett Banasiewicz, was one of the top riders in the United States. In 2011, Banasiewicz opened the Kitchen BMX and Skatepark in his hometown of South Bend, which is about a half-hour drive from Roberts’ home.

Banasiewicz was hurt in a crash in 2012, suffering a traumatic brain injury. He is riding again, but still in the process of recovering to get back into competition.

In the meantime, Banasiewicz is also mentoring younger riders and coaching at the Kitchen. Running the park is a family affair, with Roberts and her mother, Betty, often helping at the facility.

It gives Roberts ample time to train — she has keys to the place, after all. During the school year, rides on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays after class, and then all day on Saturdays and Sundays.

“Really, it’s 40 hours a week is what I put in at the skate park,” said Roberts, who turned pro in 2012.

She takes pride in helping younger riders, both boys and girls. But it’s on the women’s side specifically, in which Roberts could be an inspiration. Men outnumber women in participation, but riders and organizers see promising signs for growth since the sport was added to the Olympics.

UCI, cycling’s international governing body , began working with Hurricane Action Sports, which runs the FISE World Series, to organize UCI BMX Freestyle Park World Cup in 2016. The series’ most recent stop in Montpellier, France had 30 women riders, up from nine in 2017 and five in the first year.

Women have “always been there but now that they’re part of the Olympics we see sponsorships coming in for (women) as well as them receiving support from national federations to go to events,” UCI spokesman Louis Chenaille said. “Of course this leads to a higher level of racing at the same time as some girls can now focus on just riding.”

Roberts was one of three U.S. riders in the top 10 in the UCI rankings in May, with five overall in the top 20. Such quality depth bolsters USA Cycling medal’s chances, along with hopes that it can generate interest in the action sport among a new generation of girls.

“There’s an opportunity to grow pretty significantly with Hannah’s ability,” said USA Cycling president Derek Bouchard-Hall, “so we’re optimistic.”

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