For many young athletes, the thought of standing atop a podium representing your country as a gold medal is placed around your neck is the ultimate achievement. For 18-year-old, Hannah Roberts, it is a reality within reach.
The bicycle motocross athlete recently became the first-ever qualifier for the Olympic event. However, the road to perform at one of the most renowned competitions in all of sports has not been easy. In fact, until recently BMX was not even considered an Olympic sport.
While BMX racing is in its fourth Olympic Games, the discipline of BMX Freestyle was set to make its debut in Tokyo in 2020 alongside karate, sport climbing, surfing, skateboarding, and the return of baseball and softball. The decision to add the freestyle competition was announced in 2017.
Since learning the news, Hannah, along with BMX riders across the country, began a three-year journey to prove she had what it takes to qualify for the team. While most kids her age are simply trying to graduate high school, Hannah spent nearly 50 hours a week practicing new tricks and participating in cardio and strength training.
Her grit and determination paid off as she continued to dominate world competitions. After earning a first-place title at three world cup events and one world championship in 2019, Hannah was notified she was the first qualifier on the U.S.A. BMX freestyle Olympic team.
“To have earned the opportunity to represent my country and my family is a huge deal,” Hannah says. “Everyone who plays sports dreams of the Olympics in one form or another. I am honored to be able to wear U.S.A across my chest.”
Back to the basics
A Buchanan native, Hannah has since moved to North Carolina to be closer to medical trainers and other professional BMX riders. However, she will never forget where it all began — at a local skate park when she was just 8 years old.
“I had tried participating in all the team sports, and I didn’t find it as fun to have to rely on others to perform well,” Hannah says. “I had watched BMX riding on television and wanted to give it a try. My parents took me to a skate park, and I immediately fell in love.”
In the years that followed, Hannah’s love for the sport and her skills continued to grow. However, with each new trick she landed, there was always a fear in the back of her mind that had to be overcome.
“It is a scary sport, and no matter how good you are it forces you to work past the fear of the unknown every day,” Hannah says. “It only takes one second to change everything.”
No one understands this sentiment better than Hannah herself who suffered a potential career-ending injury at age 10 which left her wondering if she would ever be able to ride again.
“After getting injured, there was a moment when I considered quitting riding all together,” Hannah says. “But while I was in the hospital, I received calls from several pro-BMX riders, which gave me the motivation I needed to keep trying.”
Not long after qualifying for the Olympic team, Hannah was forced to put the brakes on her dreams as the world around her seemed to come to a screeching halt amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Like so many other large events, the Tokyo Olympic Games were postponed for the first time in their history.
“As an athlete, I’d had a vision in my head for the past three years and had been training to be at my peak performance level come this summer,” Hannah says. “To hear [the games] were pushed back after working so hard, it was definitely disappointing. But I’m relieved they are taking the situation, and all the athletes’ health, seriously.”
With the opening ceremony now slated for July 23, 2021, Hannah continues to keep her eyes on the prize. She and her fellow BMX riders in Holly Springs, North Carolina came to an agreement to quarantine together so they could continue to train.
“During the first week of everything shutting down, it was hard to figure out the next steps,” Hannah says. “We are all taking the necessary precautions and don’t go anywhere outside of our house and the park to ride. We even built our own gym at the park.”
Striving for perfection
While it may take a little longer to get to Tokyo, Hannah looks forward to the day she can perform her 60 second run in front of the judges. While the sport itself is new to the Olympics, judges will be scoring based on criteria Hannah has been perfecting for many years including speed, number of tricks, how clean a run is, and how well a rider uses the entire course.
She also continues to push herself outside of her comfort zone to land new tricks including her latest — a backflip barspin to tuck no hander.
“My goal is to stay healthy and put down a run that I’m proud of,” Hannah says. “If I can call my parents right after and say, ‘I did this, and I can’t believe it,’ that’s all that really matters to me.”
Through it all, Hannah continues to remain grounded and grateful for the experience she’s been given.
“I try not to think about being number one in the world,” she says. “I’m motivated knowing that someone is always striving to take that spot away from me.”
Photography by Emily Sobecki