Olympic BMX racer Alise Willoughby continues to embrace change and overcome hurdles in pursuit of gold

In fourth grade, Olympic BMX racer Alise Willoughby, now 29, completed a time capsule for school. The assignment was simple: Her 9-year-old self would fill out a series of questions in 2000 and then look back on them 20 years later. Some of the questions were straightforward, such as naming a favorite color or movie, while others made her think a little more deeply.

When I grow up, I want to be (career choice)? -- the time capsule survey prompted.

In cursive, Willoughby responded: An Olympic pro bike racer.

In June 2020, at her home in San Diego, Willoughby (née Post) discovered the time capsule while going through childhood relics. She couldn't believe what she was reading.

"I was in shock when I saw that time capsule and that I'd written that," Willoughby said. "BMX didn't become an Olympic sport until 2008, and it was like I was making up my future. How many kids say they want to be an astronaut or whatever it might be? I got to achieve that. I am an Olympic pro, which the terms and the vocab didn't really make sense at the time, but now they do, and it's surreal."

Looking back, Willoughby, a two-time Olympian and 2016 Rio Games silver medalist, isn't even really sure how she landed on that career aspiration in elementary school.

Willoughby played various sports, dabbling in dance and gymnastics, and pretty much any recreational sport offered to her throughout her childhood. She loved competing and staying active. However, one sport captured her attention.

"I've always loved gymnastics," Willoughby said. "Watching Team USA at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, I remember wanting to do that. All through my younger years, I thought that was the route I would take to excel in sports."

Spending 30 hours per week in the gym, Willoughby dedicated herself to gymnastics. But on the weekends she wasn't in competitions or practicing, she started joining her brothers at the BMX track.

When her brother Nick, who is eight years older, started riding bikes and frequently going to the track, he noticed there were little girls there, too. Nick suggested to their parents that Willoughby join him and Jeremy, who is 11 years older than Willoughby, on their rides.

Trying to play catch-up and hang with her older brothers, Willoughby agreed to go to the track and give it a try. Although she wasn't convinced she wanted to be there, Willoughby got out on the track and rode around with kids her age -- it was fun and friendly racing with no pressure to compete. But when it came to racing competitively, Willoughby said she "chickened out."

With the help of her mom and Nick, she decided to return. "I went back the next week and got that thrill of racing," Willoughby said. "I've never looked back. The competitive spirit was in my blood."

Though still competing in gymnastics and recreational sports, Willoughby began joining her brothers more regularly at the track. Growing up in St. Cloud, Minnesota, the track options were limited. Her family would drive an hour to the indoor racetrack outside of the city, all of them packed inside their minivan.

"BMX has been the glue for my family," Willoughby said. "It all started with those family trips."

After making multiple trips to the indoor track, her family and other locals decided to open an outdoor racetrack closer to home. Transforming a vandalized city park into a BMX outdoor track, the Post family opened Pineview Park BMX in 1999. The track, which still operates today, is a nonprofit organization that relies on racer fees, concession sales and donations.

Even after the family opened the outdoor track, there was never any pressure on Willoughby to focus all of her attention on BMX. Throughout middle and high school, Willoughby continued to be a multisport athlete. Competing in gymnastics, track and field and BMX, Willoughby enjoyed that she could excel in all three.

"My family was super supportive of not limiting me, letting me go as I pleased and not pushing me to do anything I didn't want to be doing," she said. "I loved it, and I just excelled at sports and athletics in general."

Willoughby won her first girls' overall national bike championship in elementary school. She went pro at 15 but wanted to continue competing in multiple sports. It wasn't until she became the youngest to win the American Bicycle Association national title in 2006 that she even entertained the idea of putting all of her time and energy into BMX. Three years earlier, the IOC had announced that BMX would be an official sport for the 2008 Beijing Summer Games.

"I won the pro title at 15, and that was when I found out about the Olympics, and I knew that once I had turned 18, and I was old enough to focus on BMX and the Olympics, that I'd be going that route," Willoughby said.

For the first few years of her professional career, Willoughby juggled three sports while traveling the world as a BMX pro rider and finishing high school with a 4.0 GPA. After graduating from St. Cloud Technical High School in 2009, Willoughby moved to San Diego and dedicated everything to BMX.

"By the time I graduated high school and packed up the bags, and I moved out to San Diego, I think everything became very real," Willoughby said. "The process had started. I was old enough to go out for the 2012 Summer Olympics in London."

One year before Willoughby competed in the 2012 Olympics, she underwent lateral collateral ligament (LCL) surgery -- knee and hamstring reconstruction -- after flipping over the handlebars of her bike in July 2011. But even that didn't discourage her from competing on the biggest stage for her sport.

Despite finishing 12th in her first Olympic appearance, Willoughby embraced the platform and viewed it as an opportunity to show the next generation of girls' BMX racers that this dream is possible.

"We're kind of this inaugural bunch that's paving the way for generations to come," Willoughby said. "The Olympics have been such a great platform for these young girls to see that. They see us on the world stage. They see us pull our helmets off with messy hair and not care, embracing the competitive and aggressive side of BMX racing."

Four years after her first Olympic appearance, Willoughby competed in Rio de Janeiro and earned a silver medal. After working so hard for this moment, medaling at the Olympics was more than just a prize.

Just two years before Rio, Willoughby experienced heartache like nothing she had ever known when her mother, Cheryl, died from late-stage melanoma. And when Willoughby was on the podium in Rio, she knew that medal was bigger than she was.

"My mother was such an influence in my life, and just because you can't see people doesn't mean they're not there," Willoughby said about the day she won the silver medal. "You feel them and carry on whatever legacies they may have left you."

Nearly a month after Willoughby won silver at the Rio Olympics, tragedy struck again in her life. Her fiancé, Australian BMX racer Sam Willoughby, suffered an accident during a practice that left him paralyzed and without feeling below his chest. She stayed by his side, coaching him through his recovery.

The couple married on the eve of 2018. Sam stood at the altar with the aid of leg braces just 15 months after his accident. "I couldn't imagine a decade without you," Sam wrote on Instagram on the couple's second anniversary. "... I love you more than life itself. You are my hero, my best friend and my rock."

After the wedding, Willoughby returned to her family's racetrack in Minnesota. For the first time, she was competing as a pro on the track.

"In 2018, I finally got to race there on the elite level in front of my hometown crowd. It felt full circle with everything that's happened," Willoughby said.

Leading into the 2020 Olympics, Willoughby was a favorite to win the gold for Team USA after winning gold at the 2019 world championship. And during this pandemic, as she has adapted to the changes, Willoughby thinks she benefits from having her husband as her coach.

With this extended time for training, Willoughby and her husband have embraced the opportunity to try new things and shift immediate goals. "We've gone through a roller coaster of events together," Willoughby said. "I don't want to call it an opportunity to capitalize on his expertise. He's one of the greatest BMX racers of all time. It's been a huge, huge asset to me in all of my competition since we've taken on this project together. I want to be the best, and he wants that too."

When the Tokyo Olympics were postponed this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Willoughby used those challenging moments from the past six years to help get her through the disappointment.

"It was tough to swallow when the Olympics were postponed," Willoughby said. "Obstacles of every form are going to get thrown at you. Life isn't fair all the time, but you have to pick up and move forward. Finding the joy in the process has been a huge blessing in disguise amidst what has been a very crazy 2020."