Seize the Day

Mike Day wakes up and stares at the ceiling. It's 5 a.m. on June 14. Day spends the next three hours staring up at the ceiling of his dorm-style room at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, CA. It is the biggest day of Day's life.

"I've never felt butterflies like this in my life. I get nervous at big events, but I've never felt like this," says Day, a 22-year-old BMX racer from Santa Clarita, Calif. "There's just so much at stake that I'm trying not to think about it as much as I can."

Day's forte is riding smooth and fast. He utilizes his 6-foot-3 frame—massive in the BMX world—to milk whatever energy he can from transitions. He often double-jumps what are singles to the rest of the field, and, ranked eleventh in the world, he's among the sport's elite.

"He's by far the best bike handler not only here in the States but in the whole world," says Mike King, head coach of the U.S. Olympic BMX Team. "But he's also had his problems in the past in pressure situations, problems getting out of the quarters or semis."

The Olympic Trails features an individual time-trial followed by four scheduled head-to-head, eight-man one-lap motos. The winner—the rider with the best points at the end of the day—joins Texan rider Kyle Bennett (who qualified in May based on a year-long points system) on the U.S. Olympic BMX Team. The other seven competitors? Thanks, and good luck until 2012.

The Chula Vista track, known as "The Duplicate," is something of a not-so-secret weapon for U.S. riders. It's the only known replica of the Olympic racetrack in China, with the same blueprints (translated from Chinese), designer/builder, 26-foot start ramp, paved corners, jumps, and rhythm sections.

In January, Day moved to Chula Vista full-time in order to ride "The Duplicate" every day. He roomed for a time with an alpine snowboard racer and shared meals with Olympic track and field athletes, archers and rowers. But when Bennett beat him to the first team spot, Day had to switch game plans.

"We started all this qualifying stuff a year ago and I was doing really good in the points, but then Kyle started killing it. Once I knew I couldn't catch him, I thought my best chance was to lock down in Chula Vista and just own the track. So when most of the guys went to the world championships in China [in early June], I was here riding the track every day, getting ready for Trials," he says.

Day got his first BMX bike for his ninth birthday. "I got pretty serious when I was 11 or 12, got sponsored by a local team, but it was more like a family thing with me and my dad," says Day. "But when you get to elite [class]—I was 17——it's a full-time job. You can't half-ass it. Well, I went one season half-assing it and I knew then that I had to decide. When I turned 18, I found a coach and I spent the next year trying to get stronger out of the start, which has always been my downfall," says Day.

With his SoCal surf style and affection for freestyle, Day nevertheless bristles at the perception that BMX racers aren't athletes in the way that the U.S.'s track & field stars are.

"Everyone thinks, 'Oh BMX, it's a kids' sport,'" says Day. "But in the last three years, it's turned serious. Everyone's got a trainer, a coach, a masseuse. Everyone's got two extra bikes, a mechanic, and we're flying everywhere. The Olympics caused a total 180. I get an e-mail from my coach every morning telling me what to do. And he's always video-taping or we're going over film. It's crazy now to the point of overwhelming. So it bums me out when people say it's not a real sport."

Day wins the Time Trials portion of the June 14 trials in a scorching hot 36.60 seconds—the same time that the current World Number One in the Union Cycliste International ranking, Donny Robinson, won an Olympic preview race on the Beijing track last August.

He keeps charging, dominating the first moto and winning two of the first three. It's Robinson who relegates him to second in the second moto, but by winning the third moto Day mathematically eliminates his rivals for the second spot on the Olympic team roster. The fourth moto is canceled.

"Mikey, plain and simple, rode the best today. He deserves it," Robinson tells USA Today. [Editor's Note: Robinson has since been named to the team as a coach's selection]

"What solidifies it is Mikey Day's time-trial time was the exact winning time of Donny's victory at the test event in China last year," says coach King, himself a former World Champion and BMX Hall of Famer. "That 36 second mark was the golden time, and we knew that. And this makes us all feel pretty good, knowing we've got the same track and the same fastest times."

"And Mikey stepping up like that, with everything on the line, that's something he's had difficulty with in the past. And by now rising above it, I really think he feels like he can win this thing"—the Olympics—"and that's what we need," King adds.

It takes a few days for the moment to sink in for Day. By then, he's said goodbye to all his friends and family who had come to support him in Chula Vista (he had, after all, invited everyone in his cell's phone contact list).

"It's just been a huge boost of confidence—like, you can do it with everything at stake. And that's the best thing I took out of this. I guess it makes my head a little clearer, because that was by far the most pressure I've ever felt on a bike, racing," says Day.

"It's also kind of cool to know that these past three years have only been a dream in the making. But now, the dream's finally coming true. There's a big difference."

Day plans to stay on in Chula Vista until the team departs for Beijing. The Olympic BMX events are slated for Aug. 21-22. Naturally, Day isn't expecting to sleep much as the event approaches. But he'll deal with it.

"Now I can take a deep breath. Everything just seems clearer now knowing that I'm going to China, rather than wanting to go to China," he says. "So the mission continues."