Olympics

World champ Alise Willoughby will lead the U.S. BMX racing team at her fourth Olympics in Paris

woman winning award
Third placed USA's Alise Willoughby with her bronze medal during day eleven of the 2023 UCI Cycling World Championships at the Glasgow BMX Centre, Glasgow, Scotland, Sunday Aug. 13, 2023.
Tim Goode | PA via AP

Alise Willoughby has done just about everything in BMX racing except win an Olympic gold medal.

The St. Cloud, Minnesota native will get her fourth shot at the Paris Games.

The 33-year-old stalwart of U.S. racing was selected Tuesday for the five-rider squad — three women and two men — that USA Cycling is sending to the Summer Olympics in just over a month. Willoughby will be joined by Felicia Stancil, who will be making her second Olympic trip, and newcomer Daleny Vaughn. Kamren Larson and Cameron Wood are the men’s BMX riders.

“I think for me, just overcoming all the challenges I’ve had, and ultimately seeing things as opportunities to be better yet again, that’s why I keep doing this,” Willoughby told The Associated Press. “And at this point I’m like, ‘All right, girls. Go!’ The team, I mean, they’re not even in the same decade as me. It’s crazy. But I’m still hanging on.”

Willoughby is doing more than just hanging on; she is still at the top of a sport that rarely rewards longevity. She recently won her third world championship in Rock Hill, South Carolina, on the same track where seven years ago she won her first.

Yet the Olympics haven’t been kind to Willoughby over the years.

She probably should have qualified for BMX racing’s debut at the Beijing Games in 2008, but she was two years shy of the age cutoff. When she did qualify four years later in London, she crashed out in the semifinals, and did the same three years ago in Tokyo. Her only medal was a silver in 2016 in Rio, when she finished behind Mariana Pajon of Colombia.

bmx biker
Alise Willoughby of the United States competes in the women's BMX Racing quarterfinals at the 2020 Summer Olympics, Thursday, July 29, 2021, in Tokyo, Japan.
AP Photo | Ben Curtis

“With our sport, you could run the race 10 times over, back-to-back, and you get different results,” Willoughby said. “There are just so many variables. The things that I think about, executing and putting it together and getting a medal from it, you know, that opportunity that comes once every four years is special. Not a lot of people have that.”

The 29-year-old Stancil knows something about Olympic disappointment, too. The 2022 world champion qualified for the finals in Tokyo but finished one spot out of the medals in fourth place.

Then there is Vaughn, the 2022 national champion, whose third-place finish at worlds clinched her spot on the Olympic team.

“Being selected to the Olympic Games is an unexplainable feeling. It’s something I have wanted since I was a kid, and the 2024 Games was always the goal,” Vaughn said. “It feels so good for the hard work to pay off.”

Larson will make his Olympic debut after following up his gold medal from the Pan-American Games with a national title.

For the 22-year-old Wood, making the squad for Paris is a testament to his resiliency. He began riding in Montana, where there are few BMX tracks available, yet quickly rose to become one of the best riders in the world. But for the past year, Wood has had to deal with a series of injuries, including a significant injury to his shoulder that required surgery.

With a chance to compete in the Olympics, he decided to put off any more potential operations until after Paris.

“There has been several challenges and a lot of adversity faced during the qualifying process. It feels rewarding to have faced those challenges head-on, grow as an athlete and person, and ultimately earn my way in,” Wood said. “It’s been a dream of mine for a long time to represent my country in the Olympics and give it my all. I couldn’t be more thankful and appreciative for all of the people that have supported my journey and helped get me to this point.”