BMX cyclist Alise Willoughby knows facing down fear is essential to her success
At the U.S. BMX national championships in March, Alise Willoughby knew in midair that she'd misjudged the first jump on the Supercross track. She hadn't given herself enough space to land and avoid the other riders.
Going 35 mph, Willoughby, the most successful BMX racer in history, fell and slid across the asphalt surrounding the course in Rock Hill, South Carolina. As she rolled, the visor of her helmet broke off and the lens of her racing goggles cracked. When she finally came to a stop, she did her Willoughby crash check.
"You want to make sure you're good with your head," she says. "Then you go through the vital checks, and it's like, 'OK, what hurts?' If something hurts, I put a little pressure on it to see if it's actually hurt or if it's like, 'Wow, I just tore half my skin off.'"
That day, it was the latter. She scraped most of the skin off the right side of her body.
Then the following day, it happened again. On a turn near the finish line, Willoughby crashed into a rider 50 pounds heavier than her and both tumbled off their bikes. This time, she fell on top of the other rider, who absorbed the brunt of the crash. Injuries to both riders were minimal.
In the end, Willoughby took home bronze, the first time she hadn't won the national championships since she turned pro in 2006, at the age of 15 -- and the first race she'd lost on U.S. soil since April 2017.
But she says the experience was, in some ways, comforting: "Say you don't crash for a while. It's kind of like, 'When's something going to go wrong?' And after you've had that gnarly crash, it's really relieving to be like, 'I'm OK. I just need to let my skin heal and deal with a bit of shower sting. Not everything that happens is going to be catastrophic, and that's good to know.'"
Willoughby knows this perhaps better than any other rider -- and her fortitude in the face of fear is, perhaps, what accounts most for her unprecedented success in the sport.
Born in 1991 in Minnesota, Willoughby was always active as a kid. She won a state title in gymnastics and grew up riding BMX alongside her brother, who refused to coddle his little sister. She says, "I remember my very first race, I had a crash and he's just like, 'Get up!'" She laughs. "There was no mercy from the word go."
In BMX racing, riders line up behind a starting gate at the top of a large hill. When the race starts, they accumulate as much speed as possible on the downhill to carry them through the rest of the course, which features jumps, banked curves, and straightaways. At the elite levels, riders can finish in under 40 seconds. With eight riders in a heat all attempting to cut the fastest line, crashes occur quickly and regularly. The safest place to ride is typically in the lead, away from the other athletes, but getting there is, of course, a tall order.
Naturally gifted at the sport, Willoughby (then Alise Post) racked up victory after victory competing in the American Bicycle Association (ABA) girls divisions, and later, the women's. In 2007, she won the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) girls world title in her age division, and if she'd been old enough, she would have been on track to make the 2008 Olympic team. But the age requirement was 19, and she was only 17, so she instead set her hopes on the 2012 Games.
She also met her future husband, Sam Willoughby, that same year as 17-year-olds in a competition in China. Sam wanted a more competitive BMX scene, so he moved from his native Australia to the United States in 2008, living with Alise's family and other cyclists while he trained. He won the junior BMX title in 2008 and 2009, and Alise and Sam moved to San Diego, where the U.S. Olympic team was based, in 2009.
The couple seemed to both be firmly on track for the 2012 Games -- until a July day in 2011 when Alise flipped over the handlebars of her bike just days before the upcoming world championships. Her injuries were massive: a complete tear in her hamstring, a hairline fracture of her femur, a partially detached meniscus, a partial tear in her ACL and damage to her peroneal nerve, which controls the foot.
The BMX season had just started, and the top riders that year would qualify for the Olympics the next year. Her doctor said recovery would take six months. Four and a half months later, Alise was competing again. She says, "I had to be racing the best I've ever raced and somehow make up for all the points I had missed."
Alise managed to qualify for the 2012 Olympics, but the fear of another injury loomed over her. She continued to wear a knee brace, even though it slowed her down, because it made her feel more safe. "I was like, 'I'm going to leave it, race with it, and keep my special security blanket on for this Olympic race.'"
During the semifinals, she crashed twice, one of which gave her a concussion so bad she doesn't remember walking across the finish line. Overall, she finished 12th, far from the Olympics she had dreamed about.
The Olympics were a success story for Sam, though. He won a silver medal in London and then went on to win the 2014 world title, while they continued to live together and train in San Diego. Four years later, Alise had fully recovered from both the mental and physical toll of the 2011 crash and earned redemption at the 2016 Rio Olympics with a silver medal of her own, while Sam placed sixth.
But a month later, everything changed with a freak accident that almost killed Sam. He was training -- an active recovery day, nothing different from what he'd done thousands of times -- when he fell backward on his bike. The impact compressed his spinal cord, causing paralysis in his arms, legs and chest.
The original prognosis was devastating. But he rehabbed twice a day, six times a week in order to walk down the aisle with Alise for their wedding, scheduled 15 months later, on Dec. 31, 2017. Slowly, he progressed from riding a stationary bike to crawling to walking, wearing leg braces and using a walker. He would never race again, and the specter of the crash was constant in their lives.
"I would say I struggled with going back into the sport at a high intensity for a little while," says Alise. "But I think it was therapeutic to keep riding and racing."
Eventually, Sam decided to stay in the sport by coaching Alise. "Once he was able to say, 'You know what? I'm willing to be a part of this again,' that just gave me this new inspiration and motivation," she says. "It just made everything feel right again."
Such an arrangement could emphasize the dangers of racing, but according to Alise, it doesn't. "You don't ever want to race with that fear in your head," she says, "and he can't ever coach me with that fear in his head. We call it 'hesitation devastation.' I guess we say it more jokingly than anything because, at the end of the day, we don't really ... I don't want to say we don't address crashing, but it's not ever the plan."
When she competes, Alise has a set warmup routine and a preferred way to tackle certain elements on the course but no mantras or lucky pendants she relies on. Instead, she defers to mental training, which diverts her brain away from any fear. "Being able to focus on my breathing or my line or where I want to be positioned on my bike -- all those physical or tactical things keep you distracted from your mind wandering to places it doesn't need to," she says.
Now, nearly three years after Sam's accident, Alise is eyeing gold at next week's world championships -- and next year at the Olympics in Tokyo. She knows that crashing is an inevitable part of her sport, but that it's also so much more than that. "I don't want to just highlight that we crash," she says. "To the naked eye, it might look like a crapshoot, but we're trained to read situations really fast. So yes, things can go wrong very quickly, but you can also make a decision, and then things go right really quickly. It's just an extremely fast-paced sport."